The Decalogue (1988)
THE FILMS There's a good reason that the Ten Commandments have been with us for a few thousand years now (other than several religions proselytizing them, that is). They're simple, memorable, and the temptations they proscribe come up fairly often in the average life. The late Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Veronique, the Three Colors trilogy) underlines the everyday nature of human moral struggle in The Decalogue, his masterful set of 10 one-hour films based on the Commandments. Set in and around a grim Polish high-rise apartment complex, the films find intense drama in the extraordinary choices ordinary people sometimes have to make: A father trusts his son's life to the findings of computer technology, with tragic results; a woman waits to hear a prognosis from her ill husband's doctor, so she can decide whether or not to abort her lover's child; a young woman opens a letter she is not to open until after her father's death, altering their relationship for good; a brutal murderer is arrested, and the state prepares to take his life as punishment; an impotent man urges his wife to have an affair, then can't take the notion that she will. These are generally simple films, focusing on just two or three characters, shot mostly in small, plain rooms with lots of closeups, and edited at a stately pace. But the powerful scripts (by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz), the excellent performances, and Kieslowski's unhurried direction generate complex feelings that make the issues raised by those old written-in-stone biblical laws resonate in ways that few sermons ever do.
THE DISCS There's a good reason Kieslowski's The Decalogue is not as well known outside film-geek circles as his other work: How do you show 10 one-hour films? The segments were originally shot for and shown on Polish television, but theatrical releases have been problematic; a work that size is even hard on homebound formats like VHS or DVD. Though it has been available on individual tapes and discs before, the Facets Video Decalogue compiles all 10 films into a single, well-done three-disc set. The visuals are not exactly demonstration quality (Polish television, remember), but the transfers are fine, bringing out the detail necessary for footage shot in such gray, dim confines. There are no running commentaries, but Roger Ebert offers an At the Movies-style intro to the set, and the last disc includes a brief snippet of footage from the set of Decalogue, as well as an extended round-table interview with Kieslowski from Polish TV (almost worth seeing just for the Iron Curtain-era production values), and a short doc in which friends and colleagues remember the director, who died tragically early at age 54 in 1996. The Decalogue is still no picnic to watch, even in this easy-to-access form, but Facets has made it even more worth trying.