Some films are a pleasure to watch, some a duty, some (yes, it happens) an awful chore. But rarest of all are those films that are so accomplished, so overwhelming, so profound that seeing them on screen is nothing less than a privilege. Krzysztof Kieslowski's "The Decalogue" is such an event.
"The Decalogue"--10 films based loosely on the Ten Commandments and originally made for Polish television--has been the talk of the film world since it premiered in full at the Venice Film Festival in 1989, winning acclaim as one of the indisputably great accomplishments of modern filmmaking.
But because the North American rights to the series are owned by a Canadian group whose terms for distribution domestic companies consider too stiff, "The Decalogue" is close to unknown in this country. It has never played commercially, it is unavailable on video, and even the times it has been shown at film festivals can be counted on one hand.
One of those was at 1990's AFI Film Festival, and now Ken Wlaschin, the festival director, who is not alone in considering the series "the 'Citizen Kane' of our time," has brought it back for this year's event. No one who takes film at all seriously can have any excuse for missing it this time around.
Though the cumulative effect of all 10 films, which run about an hour each, is overpowering, each segment is completely self-contained and can easily be seen independently of the others. The AFI Festival has scheduled both afternoon and evening screenings for the series, with the first two films set for Tuesday and two each on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and next Sunday.
A member of the post-Andrzej Wajda generation of Polish directors that includes Krzysztof Zanussi and Jerzy Skolimowski, Kieslowski is best known in this country for his current "Three Colors" trilogy, with "Blue" premiering last year, "White" ( see accompanying story on actor Zbigniew Zamachowski) currently playing and "Red," woefully overlooked by the Cannes Film Festival jury, scheduled to open in December.
The director first came to international notice when his darkly satirical 1979 "Camera Buff" won several international awards. He co-wrote "The Decalogue" with Krzysztof Piesiewicz and originally intended, he says, to have 10 different 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 different 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."
Though these films are based on the Ten Commandments, Kieslowski has delighted in making the connection oblique and difficult. The commandments are dealt with in order, but each film is identified only by its number, and nowhere in any of the films is the commandment in question explicitly referred to.
Yet, paradoxically, if there is one thing that sets "The Decalogue" apart, it is the ease with which it confronts the most serious questions of life, death, morality and belief. As much a rigorous scientist determined to explore human behavior in extremis as a creator of moral parables, Kieslowski places his characters in agonizing dilemmas, confronting them with problems that defy solution.
As compassionate as he is pessimistic, Kieslowski understands that when human needs are in conflict, life is devoid of easy choices. "Man doesn't choose between good and evil" is how he's put it in interviews. "He chooses between greater and lesser evil."
Resolving problems, then, either tidily or otherwise, is far from the director's concern. The exploration itself, the deep probing of psychological states in the hope of uncovering a sliver of illumination, "the contradiction," in Kieslowski's own words, "between complicated characters and simple stories," is why "The Decalogue" was made and why it is so compelling and so powerful.
As emotionally lacerating as these despairing, ambiguous pieces can be, they never so much as flirt with pretension, and that is partially a result of Kieslowski's absolute assurance as a director, his command of all the resources cinema has to offer.
Though Kieslowski used nine cinematographers, the director's spare, minimal visual style dominates each episode. The camera work is at once so fluid and so precise that you fear to take your eyes from the screen, and the films are so packed with nuance and gesture that they seem to be feature length though they are not even close.
Kieslowski is helped greatly in his endeavor by the superb actors he has chosen for his cast, the best Polish cinema has to offer. All perform with exceptional restraint, and all, including the children who appear in some episodes, have faces that speak movingly even when words are absent.