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Written with the Finger of God

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them.'” -Exodus 24:12

I have just finished viewing a masterpiece: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog, a miniseries which appeared on Polish television in 1989. In English the title is The Decalogue: ten stand-alone one-hour episodes based on the Ten Commandments and the moral code they imply. Each episode by itself is a pleasure to watch, a brilliant work of art. Collectively they are nothing short of sublime.

Wilson insisted early on that it would be silly to seriously try to map each episode directly to a commandment, yet we more or less managed to do just that for the first seven . . . after that it became hazy. However, while most episodes might have been addressing one more-or-less dominant commandment, all of them at least partially involved two or more. For instance, seven of the episodes dealt with sexual sin in some way (even if only tangentially).

Each of the episodes was set in Warsaw and centered around an occupant of the same ugly apartment building. Various characters made appearances in multiple episodes, but were only major players in one. Of particular interest was the enigmatic figure who appeared in eight of the ten episodes, but never had a line of dialogue. His role generally consisted of appearing in the background, observing whatever event was taking place, often with a saddened or disapproving look on his face. We eventually decided that this character, if he represented anything specific, was meant to be the face of Morality itself. However, even the director seemed to not have a definite concept in mind to attach to this symbol.

Without giving anything important away, here is a brief synopsis of the concept behind each episode:

Decalogue One – A young boy is ideologically torn between the rationalistic atheism of his father and the compassionate faith of his aunt. Father and son share an intense interest in computers, relying on the father’s computer to calculate whether a nearby pond has frozen over sufficiently to make it safe for the boy to skate on.

Decalogue Two – A woman whose husband is dying of cancer approaches the doctor in charge of the case. She and her husband have never been able to conceive, and she is now carrying the child of another man. She wants the baby, but if her husband is going to live, she will get an abortion. She wants to know the doctor’s opinion on the state of her husband’s health, and is determined to base her decision on his prognosis.

Decalogue Three – On Christmas Eve, a woman comes to visit the man she had an affair with years before because her husband has gone missing and she doesn’t know who else to turn to. He leaves his own family and sets out across the city with her, following a trail of enigmatic clues . . . but before long it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems.

Decalogue Four – An aspiring actress still living at home with her father stumbles upon an envelope in their apartment labelled “To Be Opened After My Death.” With her father away on a business trip, she peeks inside and discovers a secret she had never suspected concerning him and her dead mother.

Decalogue Five – Quite probably the most beautifully-made episode of the ten, this story involves three totally separate plotlines about a lecherous taxi driver, a small-time crook/sociopath, and an idealistic young public defender about to try his first capital murder case. By the end, all three stories have become inextricably intertwined in a powerful way.

Decalogue Six – A 19-year old, introverted employee of the Post Office becomes, first obsessed, then enamored with the promiscuous woman who lives in the apartment across from his building. No longer satisfied with spying on her through his telescope, he decides to reveal his feelings to her.

Decalogue Seven – A 16-year old girl has an affair with a teacher at the school where her mother is headmistress. Her mother becomes official guardian of the child, a girl, when it is born, and six years later she is still in a winning competition with her daughter over who will play the role of the little girl’s mother. Driven to distraction, the girl, now a young woman, steals her daughter, planning to run away to Canada, but a brief stop at the house of the little girl’s father brings introspection for all involved.

Decalogue Eight – In 1943 a young Jewish girl is turned away from the home of the Catholic couple who had promised to shelter her on the grounds that they cannot bring themselves to break the commandment against “bearing false witness.” Decades later, the Catholic woman is an ethics professor at a university in Warsaw, and the Jewish girl, now in her forties, comes to visit her from America to question her about the events surrounding that fateful time.

Decalogue Nine – A happily-married man discovers that he is no longer able to have intercourse with his wife, and he gives her the option to divorce him or seek attention from other men should she so desire. She refuses to do either, declaring that she will stay by him no matter what, but he soon begins to suspect that she is, in fact, having an affair behind his back, becoming successively more paranoid as he investigates.

Decalogue Ten – Two brothers, one the lead singer of a heathen rock band, the other a white-collar office worker, reunite to settle their recently-deceased father’s estate only to discover that he has left behind a priceless stamp collection. Overcoming their initial urge to profit from their father’s life-long obsession, they quickly become enthusiastic philatelists, going to ever-more extreme measures to hoarde and protect their treasure and acquire even more rare stamps.

Most of the episodes did not involve a great deal of dialogue or action. In fact, a casual observer might go so far as to say that nothing at all really happened over the course of an episode, yet I was totally enthralled during each and every one. During a few I barely moved a muscle. Half the fun of watching them was the presence of a group of friends (Wilson and I, after watching the first few alone, were joined by Martinez, Rachel, and Paige for every episode after number four).

Each episode began with preliminary guesses from the viewers about the dominant commandment to be addressed, and proceeded with a good deal of speculation about what might be going on or what the outcome might be. Finally, once the end credits had stopped rolling by and the spell was broken, we looked around at each other and tried to figure out what lessons had just played themselves out on the screen. Most of the endings were extremely open-ended, providing little or no closure and leaving the fates of the main characters wide-open to speculation.

In fact, most episodes began like a puzzle or a mystery as well, leaving a large burden on the viewer rather than on expositional dialogue to put together the circumstances surrounding the plot and characters. Speaking for myself, this sucked me right into the middle of whatever was going on. It seemed like we were simply watching a portion of someone’s actual life, like the voyeur from episode six, rather than being directly entertained or instructed by a story.

While all of them were excellent, I would have to say that my favorites were three, five, and ten. A little research online revealed that Roger Ebert actually once taught a college course over the series, and it occurs to me that this would be positively decadent fare for a group of Honors students under the tutelage of Dr. Watson (who, I discovered, happens to own the miniseries). But I digress. I just wanted to let my small group of readers in on this well-kept secret . . . highly recommended viewing!

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~ by Jared on September 25, 2005.

3 Responses to “Written with the Finger of God”

  1. Always looking for new ways to violate the 10 commandments…thanks for the tip I’ll run right out and rent this vid (that is unless that kill joy Hillary has hidden the blockbuster card again).

  2. This isn’t really your kind of thing . . . not racy enough. One episode, maybe two, would be rated PG-13 tops . . . The rest are pure PG fare.

  3. Well…I’ve had enough of that PG stuff. Been spending too muych time with old man Bush.

    All he ever wants to watch is “Beauty and the Beast” followed by “the Green Berets”.and the comments…”You can change Bill. You can be a hero Bill.” It’s enough to drive a guy to a Big Mac binge.

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