Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Film #88, Part 3: The Decalogue, Parts VIII to X (1988)

Note: The Decalogue was initially released as a ten-part television series, with each episode being a story in and of itself, though there is some crossover. As such, I have offered my review in 3 parts – one for the first three films, another for the middle four, and this is the third, covering the final three episodes.

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Initial Release Country: Poland

Times Previously Seen: none

Part VIII Rapid-Fire Summary

Elzbieta, a Polish-American scholar roughly in her forties comes to Warsaw to visit a professor of ethics, Zofia, who is roughly twenty years older than Elzbieta. The two are acquaintances, with Elzbieta having met Zofia and translated some of her works on ethics into English. Elzbieta sits in on one of Zofia’s ethics classes, in which various dilemmas are posed. Elzbieta brings up her own story as a child in Poland, during World War II. As a 6-year old Jewish girl fleeing the Nazis, she was refused refuge by a Polish couple, seemingly for not being willing to convert to Catholicism. In fact, Zofia was one of the two people who refused.

Elzbieta and Zofia continue to talk through their painful history together, though the decades have soothed the rawness of their emotions, and they are able to speak calmly about everything. Zofia eventually explains the real reason that she and her husband at turned away Elzbieta at the time – it was because they were part of the Polish resistance, and they had heard that there were German spies posing as Catholics to infiltrate their ranks. Zofia then tells Elzbieta where to find the man who eventually did give her safe haven as a child.

Zofia (back) and Elzbieta talk through their dark past together.

Elzbieta finds the man, still alive, working as a tailor in Warsaw. She goes to his shop and attempts to thank him and talk to him about his having saved her. The man, obviously pained and uncomfortable about his past, kindly but firmly refuses to speak about the event. Zofia, who finds Elzbieta just outside of the tailor’s shop, explains that the man had suffered greatly during and after the war, which is why he does not speak about it.

My Reaction to Part VIII

This episode was a bit of a relief, after the previous three. Just as with episode VI, about the father and daughter, this part eases up on the emotional rawness (I somehow doubt that this is a coincidence – three hard-hitting episodes, followed by one that is less intense. This is very like the first four episodes). This is not to say that it is any less deep or meaningful. In fact, it may be one of the most poignant and meaningful of the first eight. Very few of us will have experienced the marital infidelity, bizarre sexual relationships, or moral quandaries that we see in earlier episodes of The Decalogue. In this episode, though, Zofia’s sense of guilt over a past decision is easier for more of us to grasp.

There is a welcome calm to this episode that sets it apart. The two women featured are both struggling with their feelings over a single incident that has clearly affected them both as deeply as possible. Rather than there being any highly-charged emotional knock-down, drag-outs, this episode is more about quiet exploration of feelings of indebtedness, doubt, and irredeemable guilt.

At this point, it is not surprise that all of the technical elements of the film are top-notch. After seven episodes of the same, this is no longer surprising.

Part IX Rapid-Fire Summary

A surgeon, Roman, discovers that he is impotent. He tells his wife of ten years, Hanka, and he even encourages her to find a lover, should she desire to. She refuses, claiming that there are more important things in a relationship besides sex. Despite this, Hanka does secretly start an affair with a young man named Mariusz. The two have their trysts at Hanka’s mother’s apartment.

Hanka in the foreground, with Roman in the back. Her profound and graphic statement here is at the heart of this episode. In having her own purely physical affair, she both does and does not prove her own philosophy.

Roman eventually discovers Hanka’s affair, though he does not confront her about it immediately, seemingly wracked by uncertainty about what to do. After he does confront her, she soon breaks off the affair with Mariusz, who tells her that he loves her.

Several days after, Hanka goes on a skiing trip by herself. Mariusz, having secretly followed her, attempts to reignite their relationship, but to no avail. However, back in Warsaw, Roman has discovered that Mariusz and Hanka are in the same town. He draws the inaccurate conclusion that they are continuing their affair, and he tries to kill himself. He fails, however, and awakes to find Hanka by his side, assuring him that she will be there with him.

My Take on Part IX

Another episode that takes on the topic of sex, and it is another mature look at what can often be an uncomfortable topic. The one thing that stands out as interesting is the unusual gender roles at play in this story. Once the man’s sexual potency is gone, it seems that he has little in the way of emotional control, and he is unable to truly embrace what he himself suggests – that his wife find a lover. From this point, it is the woman, Hanka, who is in control of virtually every aspect. She does not abuse it in any way, and it strikes me that I haven’t seen many stories (especially not in film) in which the female was both totally in control while also being tender, caring, and loving.

In keeping with the first eight episodes, part nine is another excellent addition to the series.

Part X Rapid-Fire Summary

Two brothers, Artur and Jerzy, meet one another at their estranged father’s funeral. Neither man has seen each other in over two years, though they seem relaxed and closer than one would expect. Artur is a popular punk rock singer, while the older Jerzy has a standard white collar job, a wife and son.

Shortly after their father’s funeral, the two discover that their father had amassed a stamp collection worth a fortune. He had carefully kept it stashed in his run-down little apartment, though with many security devices to prevent thievery. Artur and Jerzy initially decide not to sell the stamps, though they accidentally let one set of valuable stamps be taken by a nefarious stamp collector in the area. They eventually get this one set back, but they unwittingly begin an unfortunate series of events.

Jerzy and Artur. Artur's words are initially spoken about the brothers' father, but the two men are soon both caught up in the same materialist obsession that turned their father into a recluse.

In the following days, the shady stamp dealer convinces the brothers to have Jerzy donate his kidney for his daughter, in return for an extremely valuable stamp that their father was looking for. However, when Jerzy is undergoing the kidney removal, the boys’ apartment is broken into and the entire stamp collection is stolen. After the discovery, each brother begins to suspect the other of the thievery, but they eventually realize that they were both conned by the shady stamp dealer himself. They actually have a final laugh over the affair, and show amusement that they each have bought an identical set of cheap stamps from the local post office.

My Take on Part X

Not what I was expecting as the end to such a long series. Still, it’s very good and I was completely engaged for the entire film.

Maybe it’s because I can understand the obsessive mind of a collector (having been a comic book collector for many years in my younger days), but the notion of a hidden treasure trove of valuables always intrigues me. But this story goes far beyond that. The crux of the story is how a dead and virtually unknown father’s obsession takes over his estranged sons. The two at first seem apathetic towards their new found fortune, and they seem to rekindle their friendship towards each other. Soon, though, the potential wealth corrupts them into making foolish decisions and behaving in conniving ways that run counter to their personalities. It’s actually rather similar to the Sam Raimi film A Simple Plan, though on a much more humanistic level.

As stated, I expected the final episode to have some massive element that perhaps tied all of the previous nine episodes together. I was a tad disappointed that this wasn’t a part of the tale, but this was still an excellent, if slightly more lighthearted, episode in the series.

Final Thoughts on The Decalogue

Firstly, I did discover that, contrary to my belief that the connection to the Ten Commandments was a very tenuous one, almost every episode is, in fact, directly inspired by one of the commandments. Here is the list, by both episode and commandment (you can go back to my other reviews to see how the story actually syncs up the with the commandment:

I.                    “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.”
II.                 “Thou shalt not worship graven images.” *
III.               “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.” *
IV.              “Honor thy father and thy mother”
V.                 “Thou shalt not kill.”
VI.              “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
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 (they neighbor’s goods).”

Really, it was only episodes II and III (marked with the asterisks above) that didn’t seem to have a direct link to the given commandment, but there are certainly other commandments at play in those episodes.

 Taken as a whole, this is arguably the greatest film series ever. You certainly don’t need to be a Christian, Jew, or Muslim to appreciate how each of the commandments is merely being used as an area of drama and pain in different people’s lives.

What sets The Decalogue series apart from other drama is the intellectual depth and the performances. Director Krzysztof Kieslowski had the soul of a classic novelist, and seemed to putting hard-hitting human drama onto the screen. He was using the tools of cinema rather than literature, but all of the human elements are there. The people are very real, if sometimes very unusual, and their reactions to the stressful situations hit some very uncomfortable areas of the human psyche.

I came across the little factoid that each 55-minute film had a budget of about $10,000. This means that the entire series, about 9 hours long, was probably done for under $100,000. It goes to show that true artistry does not require lavish sets, glamorous actors, or expensive filming equipment. With the right talent and vision, a masterpiece can shine through. The Decalogue does just that.

I would recommend that anyone and everyone watch this series. I even think it should probably be required viewing in high schools, right along with the literature reading lists that students get in their language classes. If more people watched and pondered the ethical and philosophical questions that are the lifeblood of this series, only good could come of it.

That’s a wrap. 88 shows down; 17 to go.

Coming Soon: Miller’s Crossing (1990)

 This is not only one of my all-time favorite movies, but it also kicks off my most anticipated 1-2-3 punch of this entire project: Miller’s Crossing, Goodfellas, and Unforgiven. Three hands-down modern classics that I never get tired of watching.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Film #88, Part 2: The Decalogue, Parts IV to VII (1988)

Note: The Decalogue was initially released as a ten-part television series, with each episode being a story in and of itself, though there is some crossover. As such, I will be offering my review in 3 parts – one for the first three films, another for the middle four, and a third for the final three episodes.

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Initial Release Country: Poland

Times Previously Seen: none

Part IV Rapid Fire Summary:

A widowed father and his 20-year old daughter share an apartment (in the same building as the mathematician, the doctor, and others whose tales have already been told). He is an architect who often travels, and she is studying theater. The two seem to have a rather odd relationship that is much more playful, bordering on flirtatious, than most accepted father-daughter norms.

Thus begins Part IV. This is just the first of several oddly playful interactions between the daughter and father. Things get even more tangled and strange as the story unfolds.

When the father one day leaves the country on a trip, the daughter discovers a letter from her deceased mother, one that her father has been keeping secret ever since her mother died giving birth. She struggles over whether to open it or not. When she meets her father at the airport, she tells her father that she discovered and opened the letter. She recites it, revealing that he is not her true father.

This sets off a strange sequence of emotions for them both. The daughter, feeling that her “father” is no longer that, believes that they have a deeper and more sexual attraction for one another. She makes advances on her guardian, who seems to consider his own feelings deeply, but he refuses. She then admits that she never opened the letter from her mother and she had forged the entire letter, in order to figure out just how they felt about each other.

The two decide to burn the actual letter, thus leaving the question about her parentage ever floating above them both.

My Take on Part IV

“Honor they father and thy mother”

This is my best guess as to the thematic commandment of this episode. This story is an strange one to take, though the awkwardness subsides quite a bit by the end. Quite a bit, but not wholly. Since we the viewers don’t know the true nature of the seeming father/daughter’s complicated relationship, it is queer and uncomfortable to see the way they interact. Even the way that they work towards a resolution seems bizarre and difficult to relate to.

Still, in and of itself, the story is as strong as any of the previous episodes. I realize that this is becoming a common thread between most of the stories in The Decalogue – otherwise normal people exploring one or two very singular aspects of or incidents in their lives. In Part IV, the pair’s situation is highly unusual and, emotionally, extremely complex – even stomach-churning to watch at times – but it works. Just watching the episode might make you reconsider your definitions of love and lust, and where and how these two blend into each other. Adding the layer of family into the equation makes this tale one that provides some very challenging notions to ponder.

Part V Rapid Fire Summary

A young vagrant, Jacek, around twenty years old is on the street, angry, and desperate. He wanders the streets, committing random acts of petty cruelty and vandalism. He does show occasional, brief moments of kindness, but mostly seems alone and violent.

Jacek’s violence is fully realized when, after cunning planning, he leads an unknown taxi driver, an almost equally cruel and vice-ridden man, out into the countryside. There, Jacek strangles the man, then brutally bludgeons his head with a rock to kill him. There seems to be little reason for the murder, outside of theft and Jacek’s blind need to hurt someone.

Jacek is captured by police, and, after a year in jail, has a hearing relating to his sentence of death. A young defense attorney makes a compelling case against the state’s execution of the young man, but clemency is denied. On his final day, Jacek’s lawyer stays with him before and completely through his terrifyingly cold execution by hanging.

My Take on Part V

Of the first five episodes, this one and Part I are the ones that will stay with me for a very long time. Predating the similarly-themed film Dead Man Walking, this film is a very mature, unflinching look at the brutality of murder. By showing the two murders in all of their grim detail, Kieslowski forces us viewers to give some hard thought to whether there is any real difference between a murderous act by an individual or the state. Like Part I, this one is certainly no picnic to watch, but it’s probably a film that every person should watch at least once.

One of the few moments that Jacek smiles, as he plays a little game with some young girls passing by. These small moments add humanity and tragedy to the otherwise nasty young man's story as murderer and murdered. 

As with the other episodes, visual artistry abounds. There are so many well-planned and executed moments of foreshadowing, juxtaposition, and allusion that any fan of the craft of visual storytelling can appreciate this film on many levels.

This one is a dark, captivating gem.

Part VI Rapid Fire Summary

A roughly 20-year old boy/man has a job as a quiet post office employee. He passes his free time obsessing over an older, female artist who lives in the apartment building across from him. He uses a telescope to peep on her sexual exploits, and he leaves fake money order receipts in her mail slot, so that she will come into his post office and give him a chance to interact with her. On top of this, he takes an extra job as her milk delivery boy, just to be closer to her a few more times every week.

One of the first moments when the young, obsessed man lures his neighbor to the post office where he works. Their story of idealized romanticism, lust, and seduction is a novel combination of both juvenile and mature approaches to the act of sex.

Eventually, he gives in and admits his obsession to her. Rather than completely shun this desperate young virgin, the woman engages him in odd ways. It starts with allowed voyeurism, but it escalates into virtual torment when she brings him home to debunk his immature notions about romantic, idealistic love. She seduces him so slowly and alluringly that he “releases” his pent-up desires long before the physical act ensues. Completely ashamed, he runs home and attempts suicide. The woman sees that her attempt at a hard lesson has gone totally wrong, and she grows very concerned about him.

The young man lives and, after several days of hospitalized recovery, returns to his job at the post office. The woman goes to visit, and it is clear that the young man is over his obsession of her, though it was nearly at the highest of costs.

My Take on Part VI

At this point, I am unsure that this episode (or any of them for that matter) have a clear “commandment” as its source. Still…

This one is another peculiar one, on par with episode IV (above). It features two people behaving rather outside of the norms, though the young man’s behavior falls within typical, juvenile norms. It is rather uncomfortable to watch him awkwardly peep on the object of his affection, with no real idea how to satiate his desires.

As with other episodes, this one goes far deeper than something so simple as adolescent lust. The man’s desire has clearly developed into a warped romanticism, and the woman is extremely sophisticated. As uncomfortable as it is to watch, it is intriguing to see just how she exacts her “lesson” to him. It’s not just an interesting intellectual exercise, but it’s also one of the steamier scenes you’ll ever see.

A final welcome ingredient is the humor. I know that any story containing an attempted suicide isn’t going to be a yuk-fest, but this one has plenty of funny little moments. Most of them are provided by the young man’s bumbling towards his neighbor.

Overall, a very different theme and tone than the previous “murder” episode, so this one was a welcome addition to the series.

Part VII Rapid Fire Summary

A 22-year old woman, Majka, steals her own 6-year old daughter from her own mother. Her mother has been raising the girl, telling her that she is her mother, rather than her grandmother. This was done to avoid scandal, as the girl was the result of Majka’s having slept with her teacher in high school. Now, though, Majka has grown tired of her domineering, school-mistress mother, and she threatens to take her daughter to Canada, unless her mother agrees to allow Majka to take over the primary role as the girl’s mother.

Majka brings her daughter to the house of the girls’ father, who has retired from teaching and is in business making teddy bears. Majka and the man discuss her plans, which seem half-baked, at best. When he goes out for a trip, Majka runs off with her daughter again. Eventually, Majka’s parents find her at a train station, as she awaits a train to the airport where she hopes to leave the country with her daughter.

As her mother takes her daughter from her, Majka hops onto the train and looks back at her family standing on the platform. We do not know if she will ever see them again.

The tenderness between Majka and her daughter is short-lived and often corrupted by multiple circumstances surrounding the two. Seeing Majka try to find some solace for them is not an easy watch.

My Take on Part VII

This is another one that leaves you emotionally raw, like episodes II and V. It’s simply no picnic.

More than those episodes, though, there are calmer moments when we can learn more about the characters’ relationships and what has led them to such desperation. While this is another episode that is simply too bleak to warrant repeated viewings for me, I have to say that it’s just as strong than any other episode. The trends of incredible acting and exceptionally well-defined characters easily held my attention.

This episode, as much as any of them, displays Kieslowski’s ability to imbue a short film with an amazing amount of depth. Despite economical use of dialogue, so much is conveyed about deep and complex relationships, that the characters become highly familiar by the end of each chapter. Episode VII is a perfect example of this.

That is not a wrap. Still three more episodes to watch and review, so come on back for my reviews of Parts VIII through X.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Film # 88, Part One: The Decalogue Parts I to III (1988)

Note: The Decalogue was initially released as a ten-part television series, with each episode being a story in and of itself, though there is some crossover. As such, I will be offering my review in 3 parts – one for the first three films, another for the middle four, and a third for the final three episodes.

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Initial Release Country: Poland

Times Previously Seen: none

Part I Rapid Fire Summary:

A boy of around ten years old spends time with his father. The two share a love of mathematics, and the boy seems to show a special gift for computers, electronics, and the logical thinking that is the hallmark of scientific geniuses. The boy’s mother is away, in some unknown, faraway country, for an unspecified reason.

The father clearly loves his son, and the only area of tension seems to be that the boy’s aunt seems to be disappointed in the lack of religious faith in his life. His father is a man who has put his full faith in the laws of physics and mathematics, and he seems to quietly eschew any notion of a supernatural God figure.

Father and son bond over some breakfast. The two quietly share a lover for both each other and the seemingly incontrovertible laws of science.

One evening, as Christmas nears, the boy asks his father if he can go ice-skating. The two excitedly do some calculations on the father’s computer to determine if the weather conditions and width of the ice are safe. Their computations point to the situation being safe, and so the boy goes out with a few friends to skate at night.

The next afternoon, the father notices the occasional sirens of police cars and fire trucks passing by his apartment complex. Though not concerned at first, he begins to worry when his son does not return from a planned tutoring session. Hours pass and he eventually joins a crowd standing next to the nearby river. His horror slowly mounts as he realizes what may have happened. His worst fears are realized when he sees rescue teams fish his dead son’s body out of the river. The ice had broken, and his son had fallen in and frozen to death.

The father staggers to a nearby religious shrine and shoves down the altar, enraged that his son would be taken from him.

Part I, My Take on the Film

This episode is incredible. I can’t say that it’s in any way uplifting or “fun” to watch, but it is simply a brilliant piece of film.

The telling of this father/son tragedy is so well done that the heartbreak at the end is that much more gutting. Every interaction between the two feels completely organic, and every little glance, gesture, and smile carries so much weight that it’s amazing to think of how simple it all seems. “Seems” being the operative word. I have a feeling that, were it that simple, many more filmmakers would be able to do it.

When thinking about the theme of The Decalogue – the Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christian faith – I have to assume that this film’s would be “thou shalt not believe in false idols,” with the “idol” being the supposed infallibility of mathematics. If so, it’s a very challenging theme, and one that doesn’t take the easy route. A cuddlier filmmaker would certainly have had the father learn a life lesson from his son’s death, and he would turn towards God. In this tale, however, the man’s atheism seems to turn to blind rage. I am reminded heavily of the final lines of the Graham Greene novel (adapted into a very good movie), The End of the Affair. In that, the atheist protagonist, much like the father in The Decalogue Part I, is all but forced to admit God’s existence and he utters the lines, “I hate you. I hate you as though you existed.”

It’s an amazingly powerful start to the series.

The quiet bonding moments between the father and son make the end of their story that much harder to watch unfold. 

Part II Rapid-Fire Summary

A middle-aged woman anxiously waits while her husband suffers from a debilitating and worsening disease. She happens to live in the same apartment complex as her husband’s attending doctor (also the same as the father and son from Part I), and she presses him for information about her husband’s condition. The doctor, in an oddly cold fashion, refuses to break hospital protocol and tell her anything. The doctor, a widower, lives alone and keeps to himself.

Eventually, the doctor does give the anguished woman a bit of information about her ailing husband. She presses him, however, for a more honest opinion. She explains that she is pregnant with another man’s child and is contemplating an abortion, should her husband live. The doctor advises her not to have the abortion, and he tells her that her husband will almost certainly die. She follows his advice and does not receive the abortion.

Miraculously, her husband recovers. She decides to stay with him and break off her relationship with the father of her child. However, it is unclear whether she actually tells him that the child is not his.

The anxious wife and the doctor. Their interactions are often fraught with emotional tension that only become clearer as they work through their own difficulties.

Part II, My Take on the Film

This episode is just as emotionally complex and powerful, though not as straightforward, as the first. One common element is the naturalism of the acting, characterization, and environment. Even though the situation is an extreme one, just as in Part I, the way that the characters deal with them and the way they are portrayed by the actors is wonderfully absorbing. While Part I’s subject of a child’s death was no picnic, Part II doesn’t exactly let its foot off the gas pedal, emotionally. It is clear by this point that filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski is not interested in mundane emotions, but rather the raw emotions that typical people deal with when something extraordinarily trying occurs. As with Part I, this one is not what I would call “enjoyable”, but it is a great piece of film that is very compelling.

Which of the ten commandments is the touch point? Much harder to say for this episode than for the previous one. It could be “thou shalt not commit adultery,” “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” or even “thou shalt not kill”. My guess is that it will become clearer after I watch the remaining eight parts, but pinpointing the specific commandment is already becoming academic. The power of the story is not from being able to identify which commandment is associated with it, but rather it is in the story and characters’ emotions.

Part III Rapid-Fire Summary

In an episode that is a bit less dour than the first two, it is Christmas Eve. A taxi driver is called away from his wife and children under a desperate ruse by a former lover. This former mistress of his claims that her husband has gone missing, and the taxi driver allows himself to pulled along on a wild goose chase for the entire night. After driving from one place to another, searching for his mistresses’ husband, she admits that it was all a lie in an attempt to rekindle their past romance. Her husband has, in truth, left her. The taxi driver does not give in to her overtures, and the two part somewhat amicably.

The former lovers' tale is one mostly shot at night, which fits the rather murky and shadowy emotions at play. Of the three first tales, this one's characters were the most difficult for me to get a good hold of.

Part III, My Take on the Film

This part did not carry the emotional impact of the first two, but it is still fairly interesting. Director Krzysztof Kieslowski is now showing that he refuses to spell out everything for the viewer at the beginnings of his stories. There often seem to be important plot elements missing in the first ten or fifteen minutes of each tale, but they are all answered by the end. Behavior that seems totally perplexing is always explained through further actions or dialogue. Such is the case with our taxi driver in this episode. Over the course of the 55-minute tale, the nature of the pair’s relationship is slowly revealed, adding new layers to the ways that we understand their interactions.

Of the three episodes so far, this one has been my least favorite. It’s not that the acting is any weaker or that the vision is any less clear than the first two. Mainly, it is that the woman in the story was difficult for me to take. Though ultimately harmless, she was clearly an emotional wreck, which always makes me cringe to watch. There is a feeling of some redemption at the end, as the taxi driver returns to his wife and family with his dignity intact, but watching him get there was not as engaging as watching the previous two stories in the series unfold.

In relation to the ten commandments, my guess is that the inspiration is either “thou shalt not commit adultery” or perhaps “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”.

That is not a wrap. Still seven more episodes to watch and review, so come on back for my reviews of Parts IV through VII.