Top positive review
12 May 2002
I will make no pretence of neutrality in reviewing these films; I believe the Decalogue to be the greatest work of art, in any medium, of the last twenty-five years. Moreover it deserves its place alongside the very greatest works of the whole western canon.
In a remarkable achievement Kieslowski and his scriptwriter Piesiewicz, succeed in taking a somewhat hackneyed idea and drawing from it something compelling, fresh and above all humane. In taking the Ten Commandments as a starting point for ten films, they could easily have delivered a pious or sentimental homily on the place of those imperatives in modern society. Instead they turn an unflinching eye on the inhabitants of a vast grey housing estate in Communist Poland, revealing both the petty motivations and the small moments of redemption in their lives. The role of the commandments in each film is often oblique and ironic, yet undeniably pertinent. Characters are pushed to the brink, not in grandiose moral fables, but in deeply felt and often sad little tales. Even the subject of a brutal murder is delivered without judgement, allowing us to see both the squalid nature of murder and the equally squalid response of the state apparatus. There are no comforting answers, no beautiful effects and cathartic endings such as he offered in his later (and more famous) “Three Colours Trilogy”; instead he offers us a truly humane vision, which neither judges nor excuses the meanness and perversity at the centre of his characters’ lives. Given the extreme nature of Communist Poland one might expect the films to be too deeply enmeshed in that country’s problems to speak to a western audience. To their credit the films do not deny the effect of local conditions, yet are not limited by a parochial vision. As with most great art, its specificity gives it an authenticity that allows it to speak way beyond the limits of its own time and place.
Kieslowski employed different cinematographers for the different episodes, giving each film a distinct character without destroying the unity of the whole project. What makes these works all the more remarkable is that they were originally made for television under the harsh rule of Communist Poland. One wonders that such work could be made by a state enterprise and be shown on state television. But then it is equally hard to imagine films of this type being made for British television in the current climate of a commercially driven industry happy to deliver unremitting pap to uncritical audiences.
Two of the ten episodes received Cinema release in slightly longer versions under the titles “A short Film About Love” and “A short Film About Killing”. There are sufficient differences between the TV and Cinema versions for separate DVD releases of the two films to be desirable.
Kieslowski was a very great artist and “The Decalogue” will come to be seen as his masterpiece. Buy it before it disappears from the catalogue.