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review added: 6/20/00

The Decalogue
1988 (2000) - Image Entertainment

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

The Decalogue Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/B+/F

Specs and Features

560 mins (10 films at approx. 57 mins each - see film listing below), NR, full frame (1.33:1), two dual-sided, dual-layered discs, Snapper case packaging in slipcase, film-themed menu screens, scene access (8 chapters per film), languages: Polish (DD mono), subtitles: non-removable English

We're halfway through the year 2000 and have already had a number of worthy candidates for Best DVD of the year. It may come as a surprise, then, that several internationally respected film critics have come out to say that the most important video release of the year is The Decalogue, a set of two featureless DVDs that costs more than The Abyss and Fight Club combined. The late Krzysztof Kieslowski created this series of 10 films, each based on one of the Ten Commandments, for Polish television over a decade ago. Since then, they have been virtually impossible to see in the United States. In essence, the very arrival of these films in this country is a special feature in and of itself.

Although he'd been making feature films in Poland since the 1970s, Kieslowski didn't become widely known in America until the 90s with the release of The Double Life of Veronique and the films that would turn out to be his final work, the brilliant Three Colors trilogy (all of which remain unreleased on DVD at this point). The amazingly high caliber of these films (and other lesser known works like No End and Blind Chance) leave the question of whether or not The Decalogue is Kieslowski's best work open for debate. What is indisputable, is that it is his most ambitious. Instead of using each film to illustrate a commandment, Kieslowski and his co-writer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, instead make more tentative connections. Some of the parallels are fairly obvious, such as Decalogue I, about a man who puts his faith in his computer to determine if it is safe for his son to skate on a local pond. In other films, the connections are so obscure as to be almost invisible. For instance, you have to stretch your definition of the word "adultery" to make Decalogue VI line up with its commandment. In this episode, a postal worker spies on his neighbor, brooding jealously over her many lovers until he finally works up the courage to meet her.

One of Kieslowski's best ideas was to have each of the ten films revolve around different occupants of the same Warsaw apartment building. This motif brings focus to a project that could easily have careened madly out of control. This also allows Kieslowski to connect the films in surprising and intricate ways. When a character from an earlier film reappears, it triggers memories of that person's story. When the man from Decalogue I passes someone dressed as Santa Claus in Decalogue III, our knowledge of the previous story makes the chance encounter resonate with grief. By the end of the series, it's easy to believe that Kieslowski could have focused on anyone, no matter how fleetingly glimpsed, and told a compelling story about them.

Kieslowski's real gift, in this and all his films, was in telling stories that were both cerebral and emotional at the same time. Each episode of The Decalogue is designed to engage the mind and provoke consideration of moral dilemmas that have no easy answers. If that's all it did, it would be easy to admire but unworthy of the bounteous praise it has received. It's the human side of the stories being told that elevates The Decalogue to masterpiece status. Although it takes place in a very specific place at a very specific time, the issues addressed are universal. They are not dealing with Eastern European politics or a specific religious dogma. These are matters of love, hate, jealousy, greed, and loss. When something starts to go wrong in these stories, the mind registers it as an omen of things to come. But at the same time, we get a sick feeling in our stomach because we can feel that things are going to get much, much worse. But don't get the impression this is an unrelentingly somber affair. The films are peppered with lighter moments, culminating in Decalogue X, the only outright comedy in the series, about the difficulty two brothers have in completing a series (in this case, it's a stamp collection).

As exceptional as these films are, their presentation on DVD could not be more bare bones. The picture is soft and grainy, but I don't think anyone expects a razor-sharp image from something made for Polish television in the 1980s. There are also frequent scratches and blemishes to be seen and, most distractingly, there is occasional instability. Having said all that, this is still a step above the theatrical print I saw, which had frustratingly difficult to read subtitles and was often much darker than it should have been. These are quiet films, but the mono sound is surprisingly strong, striking a delicate balance between the dialogue and Zbigniew Preisner's spare musical score, which is an integral part to the series' success.

As for extras, forget it. Don't like the subtitles? Too bad. You're stuck with them. Want to learn more about Kieslowski? Read a book, 'cause you're not going to find a bio here. Decalogue V and VI were expanded to feature length and released theatrically as A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love, respectively. Maybe it's greedy to think these should have been included as extras, but it would have been nice to have all of Kieslowski's Decalogue work collected in one package.

Classic foreign films remain ridiculously underrepresented on DVD. The situation is slowly improving (Criterion by themselves trying the hardest), but we have yet to see the real landmark films by such filmmakers as Fellini, Godard, and Bunuel released. The release of The Decalogue is a major step in the right direction, although its steep retail price and lack of features will certainly limit its appeal. However, those of us who mourned Kieslowski's passing, as the loss of one of the few genuine artists working in film, would likely have paid any price to have this series available on video. If you consider film to be an art form, you must watch The Decalogue. If you don't, these ten films might just change your mind.

The Films (Disc 1)

I: "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have other gods before me."
II: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."
III: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."
IV: "Honor thy father and thy mother."
V: "Thou shalt not kill."
VI: "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

The Films (Disc 2)

VII: "Thou shalt not steal."
VIII: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."
IX: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife."
X: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods."

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

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