Oct 21, 2016 Web Exclusive
Krzysztof Kieślowski's magnum opus Dekalog was essentially the Big Star back catalog circa their out of print years of the '70s and '80s, if one's searching for an analog of this film masterpiece to music. Nearly impossible to find for the better part of a decade, it screened at sundry retrospectives after initially airing on Polish Television back in 1989. A VHS release finally happened in 2000, while a DVD release followed shortly thereafter in the early '00s, shedding some light on this masterpiece, considered by many to be one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever, including actor Michael Shannon, who recently went on record as saying it was his favorite film of all-time. And at last, it's been given a long-deserved deluxe treatment--an definitive edition available on both Blu-ray and DVD replete with essays, extras, and expanded versions of two of its ten parts.
It's very tricky to call it a favorite "film" per se, as it's essentially ten 60 minute films, based loosely on the ten commandments. Two of the films, Dekalog Five and Six, were expanded into more conventional features, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love, respectively. They are the crown jewels of the set, and are certainly worthy of the increased attention. However, the former is far more successful in its expanded edition, an expository sketch of a young man sentenced to death who clearly is guilty, leading to a divine examination of the attendant moral quandaries of such an extreme topic by the young attorney Piotr Balicki, played masterfully by Kryzstof Globisz, and wracked with a vast spectrum of emotions over the criminal justice system's flaws, and what led his client, the young, imperious, and endlessly complex Jacek, to carry out such a brutal act, all the while questioning what gives the state the right to exact a punishment of commensurate cruelty.
A Short Film About Love is a bit less impressive, functioning better in its 60 minute version as opposed to the expanded 90 minute film, dissecting the cliched nature of love at myriad levels, culminating with the protagonist Tomek violently attempting to take his own life after being rebuked by the woman he's voyeuristically fallen in love with, Magda. It's simultaneously sweet, sad, excruciating, and true, four adjectives well served in describing Dekalog as a whole.
While Kieślowski had greater commercial successes in his far too short life, most notably in his Three Colors Trilogy: Red, White, and Blue and The Double Life of Veronique, Dekalog is his crowning artistic achievement. Scored magnificently with understated grace by Zbigniew Priesner, it resembles the short stories of Raymond Carver in the way its characters are held up for examination in a decidedly non-judgmental manner. The cinematography is also sublime, far outstripping what anyone would've considered standard fare for television in the late '80s, and foreshadowing a new golden age for the medium in the 21st century.
But stripping away all the accolades, and what you ultimately have is a series of films that convey the pain, agony, ecstasy, and love attendant to being alive. There are no easy answers offered by Kieślowski, bringing to mind Michael Haenke's classic quote about great cinema and how it should never offer answers, but only pose questions. And these questions are perhaps most poignantly crystalized by the appearance of Artur Barciś throughout the series, playing a different role in eight of the ten episodes. His ephemeral appearances are either frustratingly cryptic or gloriously enigmatic, depending upon your take, and seem to suggest a certain omniscience, the unknowable as posited in pre-Kantian philosophy. But there's no need to dig deeply for answers here, as there are none to be discerned. This is life as Kieślowski knew it, in its ineffable sadness, wonderment, and quest for universal connectedness. There are some things we'll never know no matter how hard we push for truths. Kieślowski merely tugs gently, suggesting that not adopting a ham-fisted approach often yields the most poignance, which is exactly what renders Dekalog such a soul wrenching, alchemic work of art, one of the most compelling of the 20th century. (www.criterion.com)
Author rating: 10/10
Average reader rating: 10/10
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