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.