'Dekalog,' that powerful modern play on the Ten Commandments, is finally getting its moment in the sun

There are great films everyone celebrates, and then there are great films few people remember. Of these Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1988 "Dekalog" is one of the greatest.

The reasons this exceptional work is not better known are not hard to find. Its great Polish director died 20 years ago, and young (age 54), so there have been no new films to keep his name alive. Also dampening enthusiasm was the almost 10 years the film spent in a kind of video-release limbo, completely unavailable to American home viewing audiences.

All that is about to change as "Dekalog" opens at the Cinefamily on Sept. 9, its first theatrical appearance in 15 years, with a Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Ray release to follow, all in a new digital transfer taken from the original 35 mm camera negative.

Originally made for Polish television, "Dekalog," as its name hints, is not one film but 10 segments, each between 56 and 62 minutes long, all co-written with Krzysztof Piesiewicz and all having the Ten Commandments as thematic source material.

Though the cumulative impact of all the films makes seeing the entire "Dekalog" one of cinema's premier experiences, each segment, like each commandment, has an independent existence. Viewing even one is rewarding, no matter which episode is chosen.

A member of the post-Andrzej Wajda generation of Polish directors, Kieslowski first came to international notice with his darkly satirical 1979 "Camera Buff."

Later known for “The Double Life of Veronique" and his "Three Colors" trilogy of "Blue," "White" and "Red," Kieslowski had originally intended to have 10 directors involved.

"But I liked doing the first film so much," he told interviewer Annette Insdorf in 1990, "that I didn't want to give the others away." Using nine cinematographers, he shot and edited the entire series in a remarkable 21 months: "Sometimes I'd shoot part of one film in the morning, part of a second in another location in the afternoon, and a different one in the evening. That kept me from getting bored."

What elevates "Dekalog" is not only that it deals with the most serious questions of life, death and belief but that it knows how passionate and dramatic these explorations can be made. Utilizing the gravity and precision of parable, Kieslowski places his characters in agonizing dilemmas, confronting them with problems that defy solution.

As compassionate as they are pessimistic, Kieslowski and co-writer Piesiewicz understand that when human needs are in conflict, life is without easy choices. "Man doesn't choose between good and evil," is how the director put it in interviews. "He chooses between greater and lesser evil."

Resolving these problems is not the director's concern but rather investigating the gap between the ideals represented by the commandments and the way we end up living our lives. A lifetime of small decisions makes adults the way they are, and in moments of crisis it's often too late to become someone else. The acute probing of psychological states in the hope of uncovering a sliver of illumination is why "Dekalog" was made.

These despairing, ambiguous pieces are always emotionally unsettling, and that is due in part to Kieslowski's complete assurance as a director. His spare, minimal visual preferences dominate each episode. The camera work is fluid and precise, and the films are so rich they seem to be feature-length though they're not.

Each of the 10 films is identified only by its number, and though in the past each has been linked to a specific commandment, this was apparently never Kieslowski's intention.

The two best known parts are more celebrated because each was made into longer versions as well.

"Five," for example, also exists in an 85-minute version (known as "A Short Film About Killing"), which won several major European awards. A gloss on the nature of murder, both by the individual and by the state, it features one of the screen's most graphic killings, spread out over more than seven minutes.

"Six" also exists in an expanded version, called "A Short Film About Love." The most overtly erotic of the group, it deals with a young peeping Tom (Olaf Lubaszenko) who falls desperately in love with the woman he spies on (Grazyna Szapolowska).

Aside from Kieslowski's themes and his skill, a key factor unifying these stories is the somber score by veteran collaborator Zbigniew Preisner. Known for his work on "Blue" and "The Double Life of Veronique," Preisner here has come in almost on tiptoe, choosing a minimal musical mode that haunts each part of the series just as its cumulative effect will haunt all who take it in.

 

No MPAA rating.

Running time: 9 hours, 32 minutes

Playing Cinefamily, Los Angeles

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