The Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieslowski's filmic translation of the Ten Commandments, is a biblical epic, but not of the traditional Cecil B. DeMille variety -- that is, an old-fashioned, outsized Technicolor extravaganza of sweeping VistaVision compositions, fiercely intense bearded patriarchs and spectacular partings of seas. Intimate, contemporary, human-scaled dramas, Kieslowski's series of 10 one-hour films are oblique rather than bombastic, tightly focused rather than overpopulated; they owe their grand scope to daunting intellectual ambition and devastating emotional impact, not to thunderous effects or thronged crowds or eyes-to-the-lowering-heavens histrionics.
Kieslowski, who died in 1996 at age 54, shortly after his announced retirement from filmmaking, further inflated a ballooning international reputation with his final movies -- the astonishing Three Colors trilogy (1993-94) -- but he had a long, richly varied 30-year career. Somewhat lost early on amid high-flying fellow Poles Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Jerzy Skolimowski, Kieslowski finally appeared on film-festival radar with the feature Camera Buff in 1979, but it was The Decalogue -- made for Polish TV in 1987 -- that firmly established him as a major figure in world cinema.
Despite near-universal critical acclaim -- the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington declared it "one of the great movie achievements of our time" -- The Decalogue has remained virtually unseen in St. Louis. Although two expanded segments -- A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love -- played at Webster University in '95, no one here has exhibited the entire series because of its prohibitive cost and the infrequency of the prints' circulation in the U.S. Over the next two weekends, however, Webster U. provides a rare -- if admittedly less than ideal -- opportunity to view this landmark work when it screens the entirety of The Decalogue on video.
Moviegoers familiar with Kieslowski's Three Colors films -- which similarly concretized the abstract principles of liberty, equality and fraternity represented by colors of the French flag -- will be unsurprised by the resolutely nonliteral approach the director takes in dramatizing the Ten Commandments. In Blue, for example, liberty was perversely equated with the annihilation of the heroine's family in a car accident; in White, equality was portrayed as the exacting of scale-balancing revenge. None of the episodes of The Decalogue quite so radically defies expectation, and they all avoid the maddening opacity of the filmmaker's The Double Life of Veronique (1991). But Kieslowski never indulges in simple preachment, and only a few of the films serve as parables that teach straightforward moral lessons. Instead, Kieslowski explores, with rigorous thoroughness, the issues brought into play by each Commandment, placing two or three principals under stress and watching as they struggle to reach a tentative resolution or reluctant accommodation -- never a tidy solution -- to an emotionally wrenching and frequently intractable problem. The films pose the most basic and existentially defining questions possible -- in Kieslowski on Kieslowski, the director enumerates a few of them: "What, in essence, is right and what is wrong? What is a lie and what is truth? What is honesty and what is dishonesty? And what should one's attitude to it be?" The Decalogue bravely attempts some provisional answers.
Now and again, Kieslowski and co-scenarist Krzysztof Piesiewicz are more purely illustrative: Decalogue 1 ("I Am the Lord Thy God") shows the tragic consequences of an agnostic rationalist's faith in formulae and computation, and Decalogue 5 ("Thou Shalt Not Kill") powerfully condemns the taking of life, whether by an individual's random act of messy, unmotivated violence or a state's legally defensible, antiseptically controlled execution. Mostly, however, Kieslowski comes at his material from unexpected angles: Decalogue 2 ("Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of Thy Lord God in Vain") deals with an ethical conundrum that forces a doctor to make a Solomonic life-or-death decision; Decalogue 4 ("Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother") probes the erotically charged relationship between a widowed father and his young-adult daughter; and Decalogue 7 ("Thou Shalt Not Steal") records the "kidnapping" of a child by her mother. In every instance, Kieslowski maintains a tight, almost claustrophobic focus on the figures in crisis, and often the only action that occurs is confined to a character's face: a soul-exposing change of expression, a look of revelatory pain, shock or confusion, a tender smile or tear-clouded stare.
All of The Decalogue's episodes take place in the same Warsaw housing estate, but they are not truly interdependent -- each can be viewed singly, though meaning accretes with each subsequent movie, and the cumulative effect overwhelms. Main characters from one segment pop up as passersby in hallways in another film, and occasionally Kieslowski will employ a more elaborate cross-reference (the plot of Decalogue 2 recurs as a story told in Decalogue 8; a minor character who exhibits an obsessive interest in stamps in Decalogue 8 serves as the motor of Decalogue 10's narrative). There's even a mysterious figure -- usually identified as "the young man" in the credits -- who appears in eight of the films: Alternately observer, harbinger and cautionary figure, he haunts the series in ghostlike fashion, adding an otherwordly presence to the everyday surroundings.
Ideally, viewers should see The Decalogue on film -- to better appreciate the often-subtle differences in the work of the nine cinematographers with whom Kieslowski collaborated -- but prints are currently unavailable for U.S. exhibition. Webster will screen the movies using a video-projection system that yields an image of the approximate size and light intensity of film, although the picture will obviously lack the clarity and tonal richness of celluloid. Projectionist Dick Bauer says that, depending on the integrity of the source tape, the experience will be "almost as good as 16mm." The first program will employ VHS video copies, which will clearly diminish the image quality, but the remaining four programs will use copies made on professional-grade BetaSP tape. On March 28, Facets Video, which is now distributing the series to Webster and other film programs, will make VHS copies of The Decalogue available for purchase in the States for the first time, but because we no longer have risk-taking video stores like Whiz Bam! or Bijou to stock them for rental, the films are unlikely to be easily accessible except by mail. And even if your local Blockbuster makes an inexplicable ordering error and puts them on the shelf, cineastes shouldn't pass up the opportunity, however compromised, to see these extraordinary works on a big screen and in a communal setting. Sacred texts, after all, rightly require congregations gathered in proper houses of worship.
The Decalogue screens at 7 p.m. Jan. 14 (parts 1 and 2), 15 (parts 3 and 4), 16 (parts 5 and 6), 21 (parts 7 and 8) and 22 (parts 9 and 10) at Webster University's Winifred Moore Auditorium, 470 E. Lockwood Ave. For more information, call 968-7487.