For many years, Decalogue was considered to be the "lost" film of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Unseen for the most part outside of Europe, its North American distribution was blocked by the owner of the U.S. and Canadian rights, who refused to sell them. After the success of the Three Colors trilogy, Miramax tried unsuccessfully to buy those rights. In 1995, the logjam was broken, at least in a way. A British copy of Decalogue made its way around the North American film festival circuit, allowing viewers with an interest to see the ten-part masterpiece. The marketplace has changed since then, and the entire production is currently available on DVD (as a three-disc "special edition"). Some might argue that Decalogue isn't really a movie at all, and (at least technically) they would be correct. The series was originally produced and shown on Polish TV in ten one-hour segments. However, its distribution outside of Poland has been predominantly theatrical, and, since I initially experienced it in a theater (in five two-hour parts), I consider it to be a movie. When I first saw Decalogue (in May 1995 at the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema – one of the first U.S. venues to show the series), my expectations were extremely high. Decalogue exceeded them all. Leaving the theater at the end of Part 10, I considered it to be one of the best movies I had ever seen. My opinion has not changed. Even the weakest part of Decalogue is superior to about 95% of what is shown on movie screens today. The two most powerful segments - #5 & #6 – were extended for theatrical release (as A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love), and these are as compelling as one might expect. The way in which Decalogue is broken into ten pieces makes it an easily digestible viewing project, since the experience can be spread out over a number of nights. It's hard to stress how strongly I recommend this film, even for the subtitle-phobic. If any movie has the power to change a life and provoke deep introspective thinking, this is it. It's powerful, masterful, and unforgettable.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Each segment of Decalogue ostensibly concentrates on one of the Ten Commandments. They are, in order, "I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other God but me" (Part 1), "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Part 2), "Honor the Sabbath Day" (Part 3), "Honor thy father and thy mother" (Part 4), "Thou shalt not kill" (Part 5), "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Part 6), "Thou shalt not steal" (Part 7), "Thou shalt not bear false witness" (Part 8), "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife" (Part 9), and "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods" (Part 10). Many of the segments deal only peripherally with their associated Commandment, while others tackle more than one. Part 2, for example, in which a doctor's diagnosis will determine whether an unborn baby is brought to term or aborted, is intended to show one of the ways man assumes the role of God, and can be seen as a reference to either Commandment 1 or 2. Parts 6 and 9 both deal with themes of love, sexual obsession, and jealousy. Parts 7 and 10 involve thefts, albeit of radically different kinds. Parts 1, 4, and 7 grapple with issues of parenting. Part 3 has virtually nothing to do with the Sabbath, but a great deal to do with lying, while the lie of part 8 is only a jumping-off point for a far deeper ethical debate. And so it goes for all ten episodes, with multiple issues criss-crossing and weaving their way through the stories.
Anyone can make a movie about the Ten Commandments, but few such productions would share the subtlety and depth which characterize Kieslowski's vision. It isn't the subject matter per se that gives Decalogue its greatness - it's the manner in which the director handles his material. Throughout the history of film, there has been a select group of standout pictures - movies that, for technical or artistic reasons, have made an indelible imprint on viewers. Taken as one ten-hour exploration of the human experience, Decalogue is deserving of a place in that unique cadre of films. Make no mistake - ten hours is a long time to watch a movie - but Decalogue's drama is never boring or repetitive. This is the product of an expert storyteller/filmmaker at the height of his craft, creating a masterwork the likes of which comes along only once in a great while. There is no other motion picture out there like Decalogue, which makes the payoff is more than worth the effort to find it.
Full Review (A Short Film About Killing):
Full Review (A Short Film About Love):
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