Monday 30 September 2019

1,001 Films: "Dekalog/The Decalogue" (1988)

Made for Polish television but eventually shown in cinemas worldwide, these ten hour-long existential essays by Krzysztof Kieślowski - each one a modern-day interpretation of a Biblical commandment - cram the intensity (and some of the thematic material) of one of the director's later Three Colours films into two-thirds of the running time. The connecting factor in Dekalog is that the films' characters all inhabit the same austere Warsaw tower block. As in his subsequent work, the principals in one film take supporting roles in the others; in the Three Colours trilogy, this conceit was used to bring the most unlikely people together, but here it seems intended more like an instructive, neighbourly act - the all-seeing Kieślowski keeping an eye out for those around him. Certainly, the episodes find someone and something of interest in every flat, and when an apartment becomes empty as a result of a tenant's death, the loss is felt all the more. The most noted of the ten are Dekalog Five - the basis for A Short Film About Killing, where the brilliant dissection of the law's grim process, horrifying in the best sense, is in itself worth the price of admission - and the scarcely less troubling Dekalog Six, which would eventually become A Short Film About Love.

Yet any of the other eight episodes could have been worked up into a full-length feature (Dekalog Nine is a sombre template for Three Colours White, and the relationship at the centre of Dekalog Two isn't so far from Three Colours Red); you're less likely to have seen anything of the intense Dekalog Four, a working-out of an Electra complex that once more demonstrates this filmmaker's ability to put credible female perspectives up on screen. As you'd expect from ten films, they cover a lot of ground between them, with moments for fans of sci-fi (Dekalog One), tug-of-love dramas (Dekalog Seven), car crashes (Dekalog Three), black comedy (Dekalog Ten) and even West Bromwich Albion (Dekalog Five). Ecumenically minded viewers can have fun trying to guess which film represents which moral, obvious in the case of the shorter Short Film About Killing, much less so in the covetous - and surely not adulterous - Dekalog Six. The films themselves are far from preachy, but then they're not frivolous either, with sections of wordless power that express a great and justified faith in their Zbigniew Preisner scores and Kieślowski's unerring eye for a resonant visual motif; even on as gloriously flashy a medium as DVD, Dekalog remains as graven and as reverent as the stone tablet handed down to Moses himself.

(MovieMail, May 2002)

The Dekalog boxset is available on Blu-Ray through Arrow Academy.

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