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.