Combustible Celluloid
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With: Henryk Baranowski, Wojciech Klata, Krystyna Janda, Daniel Olbrychski, Maria Pakulnis, Adrianna Biedrynska, Janusz Gajos, Miroslaw Baka, Krzysztof Globisz, Grazyna Szapolowska, Anna Polony, Maja Barelkowska, Maria Koscialkowska, Teresa Marczewska, Ewa Blaszczyk, Piotr Machalica, Jerzy Stuhr, Zbigniew Zamachowski
Written by: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Directed by: Krzysztof Kieslowski
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Polish with English subtitles
Running Time: 10
Date: 01/01/1988

The Decalogue (1988)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Top Ten

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I finally finished the ten-hour slog through Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue. Well, perhaps "slog" isn't the correct word. It was more like a stroll, a dance, a skip. In the end, The Decalogue is a masterpiece of modern times that puts most other movies out there to shame. If you care about movies at all, put everything else on your "must-see" list aside and go see this.

The Decalogue was made in 1987 and 1988 for Polish television by Kieslowski, who has since become a known entity among arthouse connoisseurs with his hit films The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and the Three Colors trilogy, Blue, White, and Red (1994). (Kieslowski was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for Red.) All television should look this good. Each episode runs just shy of an hour, but each one moves beautifully, perfectly unfolding its stories without rushing or over-explaining. Though the episodes were filmed by different cinematographers, they all have an expert softness and dreariness to them that make us feel at home.

Each episode is loosely based on one of the Ten Commandments. Some of them are spot-on, as in Decalogue: One, based on "Thou Shalt Not Have No Other Gods Before Me." The story involves a logical father who uses a computer to calculate the thickness of the ice on a lake so that his son can skate. The movie suggests, without preaching, that the father put too much energy in computers and not enough in faith. Other episodes are not so clear. Decalogue: Two, which is based on "Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord's Name in Vain," is about a woman trying to decide if she'll keep her unborn child conceived by an extramarital lover. How that fits in with taking the Lord's name in vain is anyone's guess.

All episodes take place in the same apartment complex in Warsaw, and characters from certain episodes make small appearances in others. Little visual jokes occur throughout, such as the painting on professor's wall in Decalogue: Eight that refuses to stay righted. Or the dead rabbit that fell from a window ledge in Decalogue: Two that no one ever claims.

It was recommended to me that the episodes could be watched in any order, so long as you save Decalogue: Ten for last, though I now have to disagree with that claim. The films play in pairs beginning today at the Castro, then continuing December 15 through 28 at the UC Theater in Berkeley. That gives viewers several opportunities to catch the whole thing. If you miss any of it, The Decalogue is available on DVD from Facets home video. Since it was made for television, it plays just as well at home as it does in the theater, which is not something you can say about most masterworks.

DVD Details: August 14, 2003 - In 1988 director Krzysztof Kieslowski and screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz set out to make a ten-hour epic made up of one-hour episodes, each based on one of the Ten Commandments. The film was originally broadcast on Polish TV, but its reputation eventually brought it to America, where it received sporadic theatrical and festival showings -- all to enthusiastic acclaim.

Each story centers around characters who live in a Warsaw apartment building. In truth, spotting the influence of the Commandments in each of the stories is not so easy; they tend to get mixed up and cross over to other stories. And the ten films can actually be watched in any order. In any case, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz crafted a masterpiece of modern times, an epic rife with beautiful, painful, comical -- and ultimately truthful -- little moments of the human condition.

In 2000, Facets released a rather rushed version of The Decalogue onto DVD and packed all ten episodes onto both sides of two discs. Now Facets has taken their time and done the set again (The Decalogue Special Edition Complete Set, Facets, $79.95) this time spread out over three DVDs and packaged with a handful of new extras: an introduction by Roger Ebert, an interview with Kieslowski, a visit to the set, a look at Kieslowski's life and career and a booklet with additional features.

Quality-wise, the new set looks and sounds about the same as the old set, so it's really a matter of cosmetics if you want to replace your old set with this new set. Since the films were made for television in the first place, it doesn't matter much. But if you don't own it at all or haven't seen it, put it immediately at the top of your list. Like Citizen Kane or The Godfather, it's a film you will explore again and again.

Note: The Criterion Collection released this extraordinary work on DVD and Blu-ray in 2016.

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