Movie Review: The Decalogue

To my knowledge, this is the largest film that is on the 1001 list at roughly ten hours long, a little more than Shoah (something I want to see). Loosely based on the Ten Commandments, nearly each one is highlighted in a one hour episode. I’d get myself a few glasses of milk (I drank chocolate milk from time to time) as this is going to be a large review; 10+ hours in over a few weeks were spent in prep for this review. In spirit of the piece, I watched each episode on YouTube with a coat on as it was rather cold (-5 below or more before the lethal wind chill) where I watched it; incidentally, I am part Polish (though I can’t speak a word of it) and was raised Catholic so the study of this piece was a bit easier for me. Each episode will be reviewed and a ten-point rating for the whole rather than the parts. I would like to give a special thanks to YouTube user Samuel Beckett for having the entire series available for viewing.

One is the make-or-break episode as to whether or not you want to invest your time. I wouldn’t say its a hard episode to watch but the first five minutes or so are somewhat in the middle of things. All we know at the beginning is that a kid who was running on television has had something tragic happen to him. This kid, Pavel, “solves” math problems by inputting values on a computer. He sees a dead dog on the way home from school and asks his dad what death is. They use weather reports from the past few days to calculate the thickness of the ice. Seems safe at first. As the day goes on, the father notices that his son isn’t home and so do other parents. When the awful truth is revealed, the image of the woman crying at the screen from the beginning is replayed but understood through context.

Two begins with a dead rabbit. A doctor talks to a woman who lives in the same housing project. This woman ran over the doctor’s dog two years ago and her husband has been in the hospital for quite some time. The husband’s prognosis is not good, it turns out. The woman stalks the doctor all the way home. She reveals that she is three months pregnant by another man and wants the child. The lover shows up to break the news about a mountain climbing trip and that she can’t climb with a child inside. The next day she asks for an abortion. She gets a call from her lover threatening to leave her if things go south.

Three starts with two sets of credits as opposed to the previous entries. It is Christmas Eve as a man comes out of a car dressed as Santa, giving presents to people. A woman goes to church to keep holy the Sabbath (3rd Commandment). A man sits in confusion and sings along with the congregation. A car is stolen. The man and the woman meet. Somebody named Edward has disappeared. The car stealing was a lie, according to the man because he wanted to meet her. We see a bloodied corpse in a hospital. There’s a car chase. The cops let them go because it’s Christmas. It’s all rather convoluted as they assume multiple personas. A discussion is held about love and amateur carolers come at the door. The couple crashes into a Christmas tree. A security guard arrives on a skateboard. The woman admits to lying but blames a superstition for the entire evening. They then leave in the morning.

Four begins with light streaming in on sunlight wings as a guy smokes. It is Easter Monday as a woman wakes her boyfriend up with a pitcher of cold water. The boyfriend leaves on a plane. She finds an envelope that is marked to be opened after someone’s death. She tries to open it in a secluded area and finds that it is marked for someone’s daughter, Anna. She thinks about opening it before a mysterious canoer drifts by and sees her. After rummaging through some things, she finds a blank envelope and proceeds to forge the outer message of the other one. She finds out the truth about her father. They try to work things out, talk about irreversible change that should have happened but didn’t, trying to honor thy mother and father but not and failing. The final shot includes the three colors from the Three Colors trilogy: blue, white, and red.

Five has a voiceover over the intro. Also, the visual quality differs from the previous episodes as a dull wash of colors covers the frame. A man explains in internal monologue how people consider themselves to be free. “For whom does the law avenge?” Another man is interrogated for being connected to some kind of crime as we see in flashbacks. A taxi driver (not talkin’ to me) becomes suspicious. The man from the beginning wants an image of a young girl to be enlarged. In the present, he talks about the days of Cain and punishment. Cain, according to Christianity, was the first to commit the act of murder by killing his brother Abel. The fifth commandment, the one said to be the most memorable, is “Thou shalt not kill.” With that in mind, the man looks at two young girls standing outside a bakery and ties rope around his hand. The man chokes and beats the taxi driver, thus going against the moral of the particular episode. The man randomly says “Money” near the river; at this point, I was reminded that “Money” was the 5th track on “Dark Side of the Moon” (no reason other than some weird coincidence). A noose is prepared and a death sentence is carried out.

Six deals with not committing adultery (at least trying not to). Some married guy is watching a woman, who works in a post office, in another apartment in a motivational manner similar to American Beauty and a technological manner like in Rear Window. It’s creepy and awkward to say the least. The guy takes on the job as the milkman just so that he can get closer to the woman. Each time he plays voyeur, the woman and another man get involved with more sexual things. Milk is spilled. The man and the woman meet and he admits to stalking her. We hear some music similar to that minimalist piano piece from Eyes Wide Shut but more orchestral as he continues watching her. The man and the boyfriend meet in the dark and the boyfriend cleans his clock. That does nothing as the woman and the peeping tom go out for food. The woman, after doing some kind of superstitious ritual involving a top, asks the man to caress her. Let me say it doesn’t go well after that point.

Seven starts with a child’s cry. A girl is expelled because pages are missing from her book. She enters her sister’s school whereupon she sees them involved with some kind of play involving long-necked humanoid costumes. She takes her sister and someone reports a missing child. They meet a man who makes teddy bears. Some discussion is had about whether or not the girl has stolen something. Turns out the sister is really the daughter. It’s a race to get the family back together.

Eight starts with some sunny outdoor exercise; there’s even some healthy green visible among the foliage. A man is excited about getting some stamps. A professor is put on the spot when a student brings up a story about a hypothetical cancer patient and the ethics of an abortion (trust me, they’re related in the story). The stamp collector enters and is told to leave. Another story is told about WWII and protecting those of the Jewish tradition. One student remarks, and I quote, “Such witnessing wouldn’t have been dishonest.” This ties back to the eighth commandment of not lying. This takes up roughly a third of the runtime of this particular installment. The professor and the stamp collector meet late at night. Her friend is missing. Some backstory is given about the second story from class.

Nine starts with a woman waking up in the middle of the night. Some guy is asked how many extramarital affairs he has had with women. A car hits a mailbox. It rains at night and so begins another affair. It turns out that one girl in a hospital can sing and wants to live by having some kind of surgery. No surprise that the guy is coveting her. The man bugs the phone and goes dumpster diving. Things escalate between the love triangle. We see a picture of the pope with his hands shaped like rings (if anyone played the sniper game when they were young, this will look familiar). At one point, a clip of a house being swept away in a flood is played on TV set to some cartoonish music. There is some symbology of the house located in the parable about the two houses; one built his house on the rock and the other on sand. The one on sand washed away. Without a strong foundation, the likelihood of losing touch with what’s important increases. The relationships pretty much go downhill in more ways than one.

Ten has easily the most high-powered of the set: a rock concert where the lead singer screams about going against the Ten Commandments. A guy in a suit works his way through the mosh pit. It turns out the father of the singer died. The suited man and the singer go through the father’s apartment. The father, poor as he was, cared about his son by saving newspaper clippings. A guy walks in and says the father owed him 220,000 zlotys. They find some stamps in hopes to raise the needed money. Appraisal of the stamps puts the worth in the millions. Unfortunately, three of the stamps, referred to as “Polarfahrt” (pronounced the same way it looks: “polar fart”) were in possession of the suit’s son and he traded them for some used trading cards. Can somebody say “barter” and “covet”?

Go ahead and stretch. That was a lot to go through.

Each of these episodes is a glimpse into a believable world. People err as well as make difficult decisions. Not every part of it is pleasant but it reflects real life. You could set the series anywhere and still have the same experience for the most part. While I can picture this or a remake in the States, it would probably not cover the scope of emotion or realism, or even be as well-constructed like what Kieslowski did in Poland for this series.

The book says that each episode may or may not tie in with a certain commandment. I probably should have read that before watching. My book (the Black Swan hardback) states that the runtime for the entire series is less than an hour. This is inconsistent with, say, the runtime of Riget where it’s a television series but has the complete runtime of the series. This is neither the first or the last mistake I have found with my copy.

I’m very glad that this film was split into ten parts as it was easier for me to digest than, say, a four hour epic like Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia. With those, even with an intermission, you still have to sit through it in order to get the full experience. Here, it is more like ten separate films but with a definite end after each installment. What’s more is that I could view them at my leisure. That was a nice bonus.

The only detractor I have with the series is the lack of names. The names are either mentioned a handful of times or nearly not at all. That’s why there are not a lot of names used in my review of each episode.

Out of the ten, I recommend Two, Four, Six, and Ten. Of course, watch the others but these four are the best of the ten in my opinion.

I am glad that I have seen the series for a number of reasons. It got me closer to fulfilling a sub-resolution of seeing more foreign films. I was able to prove to myself that I am capable of watching larger pieces, even if there are suitable breaks in the action. Since this is one of the larger, if not biggest, selection on the list, I can cross it off my list knowing that I can sit through nearly anything. Huzzah!


1001 MYMSBYD selection

5 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Decalogue

  1. Seeing all of this is quite the accomplishment. Well done. It has always seemed too daunting to me.

    And really still does. No matter how much you and the rest of the world like it. 🙂

    Maybe someday I’ll finally cave on that point. We’ll see.

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