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COMMENTARY

Greatness Set in Stone

The Polish-made 'Decalogue,' a brilliant series of modern moral dilemmas based on the Ten Commandments, makes its return. If you missed it the first time, though, you're not alone.

November 01, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

There must be a God: "Decalogue" is back.

Originally made for Polish television in 1988-89 by the masterful Krzysztof Kieslowski and with each of its 53- to 58-minute segments focusing on one of the Ten Commandments, "Decalogue" is as great a treasure as modern cinema has to offer. Adding to its cachet is its scarcity in this country: No films of comparable worth are anywhere near as difficult to see.

Because the American rights to the series are controlled by a group whose terms for U.S. distribution are considered too stiff, "Decalogue" is close to unknown here. It has never been shown commercially, is unavailable on American video and even the times it has played at festivals and in museums can be counted on one hand. One of those times is now.

Thanks to the cooperation of Poland's consul general, each episode of "Decalogue" will be shown twice at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater starting Friday and Saturday for three consecutive weekends. If you take film seriously, this opportunity is not to be missed.

Though the cumulative impact of all 10 films makes seeing the entire "Decalogue" one of cinema's transcendent experiences, each segment, like each commandment, has an independent existence. Viewing even one is rewarding, and no matter which episodes are chosen, they'll probably be among the best films you see all year.

A member of the post-Andrzej Wajda generation of Polish directors that includes Krzysztof Zanussi and Jerzy Skolimowski, Kieslowski died two years ago at age 54. He's best known in this country for "The Double Life of Veronique" and his "Three Colors" trilogy of "Blue," "White" and "Red."

The director first came to international notice when his darkly satirical 1979 "Camera Buff" won several international awards. He co-wrote "Decalogue" with Krzysztof Piesiewicz and 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."

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Though these films are based on the Ten Commandments (organized according to Roman Catholic tradition and not the King James version), Kieslowski has at times made the connection oblique. 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.

What elevates "Decalogue" 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.

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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 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, "the contradiction," in the director's own words, "between complicated characters and simple stories," is why "Decalogue" was made.

Always emotionally unsettling, these despairing, ambiguous pieces never flirt with pretension, and that is due in part to Kieslowski's complete assurance as a director, his command of cinema's resources.

The director's spare, minimal visual preferences dominate each episode. The camera work is fluid and precise, and the films are so rich in nuance and gesture they seem to be feature-length though they're not.

Kieslowski is helped greatly by the superb actors he's 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.

The stories, briefly encapsulated with the commandments they refer to, are as follows:

One: "Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods but Me." A mathematician father (Henryk Baranowski) and his devoted son (Wojciech Klata) share a passion for computers and a belief in the invincibility of reason.

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