Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to see Our Lady of Czestochowa and found it impossible to imagine her in any other country besides Poland; her countenance embodies the suffering of a people who have had the misfortune of settling down permanently on a level plain sandwiched between Russia and Germany. The Polish soul, laid bare by tragedy, is the canvas on which brilliant filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski probes the complexities and paradoxes of human nature.

Kieslowski began his career making documentaries in the seventies which truthfully probed the lives of everyday city dwellers with no regard for the standard Party rhetoric. Needless to say, though he didn’t intend to be overtly political, he quickly made enemies with the monolithic Soviet state. Disillusioned with the prospect of telling the truth under a Communist regime, Kieslowski turned to fiction films. Though a self-proclaimed agnostic, Kieslowski’s films exhibit a hunger for the truth that lies beneath the surface reality, an appetite which makes his films intellectually and spiritual challenging.

I had read in several places that the masterpiece of Kieslowski’s career is widely considered to be The Decalogue, a series of ten films made in 1988 for Polish television. The ten films were inspired by the ethical imperatives of the Ten Commandments and the effect the commandments have on modern men who cease to believe in the God behind them. I recently had the chance to see the first three and was very impressed by his talent and depth of insight.

I only have time to write about one, so I’ll choose the second installment. Part Two features a distraught woman’s plea to an elderly doctor for a prediction on the fate of her critically ill husband, who lies comatose in a hospital bed. It turns out she’s pregnant by another man; if her husband is going to live, she will have an abortion. If not, she wants to keep the baby. This thrusts the doctor into an unpleasant role of having to play God with two lives. I’ll stop the spoilers there, but I hope that is sufficient to intrigue you. Kieslowski has an incredible skill for dramatizing his ideas, taking complex reflections on human dignity and integrating them into a compelling conflict. Unlike the Wachowski brothers’ lame philosophical opus in the last two Matrix movies, you’re never aware of being lectured to. Tomorrow, I’ll post a brief reflection on a few of my favorite stylistic elements of Part II. Cinematically, I’m convinced Kieslowski is one of the best.

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