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Why The Decalogue Still Matters After Twenty Years

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It's been said that master film-maker Stanley Kubrick named The Decalogue, the critically acclaimed 1988 Polish mini-series (now compiled in one DVD set) the only "film masterpiece" he could think of. (Clearly he was being modest about his own Dr. Strangelove).

The Decalogue is just the kind of film that many Americans nod at in respectful recognition, but shy away from seeing. First, it's in Polish -- you have to read a lot of subtitles. Next, its subject matter explores serious, painful, profound issues -- the ten commandments and how we live up to them -- or rather, don't -- in our modern lives. In short, it is not light entertainment after a long day's work. Finally, it's ten hours. Who has the time?

For those who have not experienced this cinematic marvel, I implore you to make the time.

The film, directed by the late Krystof Kieslowski (best known for his "Red/White/Blue" trilogy), and co-written with frequent working partner Krystof Piesiwicz (who also found time to be a judge, barrister and politician in his native country), "The Decalogue's" special magic and power lies in ten modern, unconnected parables that subtly explore how people reflect or reject each of those ten divine directives when the messiness of real life and human frailty get summer-imposed on them. I can tell you in advance-according to this mind-bending series, our report card could stand improvement.

Here are some quick chapter summaries to give you a flavor of this towering, multi-faceted work. For the first chapter, "Thou shalt have no other Gods but me"), Kieslowski shows astounding prescience about how future technology growth could itself become a sort of religion. Here, a computer whiz uses his mainframe to predict changes in weather for his only son, who's anxious to go skating if the ice will hold. Via the computer, the father comes up with an encouraging calculation, but could his methods be fallible?

In chapter four, ("Honor thy father and thy mother"), a young woman discovers a mysterious note from her father, whose envelope reads "not to be opened before my death". She gives in to temptation however, with life transforming results.

In chapter five, ("Thou shalt not kill"), an aimless young man living in a bleak housing project commits an act of random brutality seemingly just to make something happen in his life, only to suffer the same fate at the hands of the country's "civilized" criminal justice system. In the following installment ("Thou shalt not commit adultery"), a young man uses a telescope to spy on a beautiful older woman across the street, and gradually we glimpse the fine line between voyeurism and obsession. (Both these installments were also edited into slightly longer films, available as stand-alone DVD features: A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love).

Finally, a late highlight comes in chapter eight ("Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor") where a young researcher visiting the class of an elderly female professor identifies herself as the little Jewish girl which this same teacher had refused to take in over thirty years before, during the Nazi era. With this revelation in the open, what transpires will ease wracking guilt for one person, and create healing perspective for the other.

But let's return to the central question: why make time for this demanding, often depressing ten-hour movie experience? First, on a practical level, with the DVD version you can watch just one or two episodes at a time, though in truth the more of them you watch at once, the more potent the cumulative effect. (When re-released in theatres a while back, you had only one ten hour or two five hour viewing options.)

Second, these are true-to-life scenarios that make us ponder deep and important issues in our own lives. Straining to keep up in a society where we barely have time to go to the bathroom, much less ponder our moral conduct or ultimate destinies, our only option is to choose the "harder" stuff independently, trusting that our mental and emotional horizons will expand accordingly. And most often, they do.

As I survey my own generation and the next, I sense we're becoming ever more careless and distractible in what we consume vis-à-vis film. It's not our fault, really. I lay the blame primarily at Hollywood's feet. I recognize people are stressed and often want to watch something "light", but there's a balance to be struck, isn't there? Movies are entertainment, but at their best, also an edifying, highly rewarding art form.

Beyond the dumbing-down effect of reality shows and video games, we now face a nadir of film originality in this country, as we confront endless mediocre re-treads of older material which make money for the various studios, but blatantly insult the taste and intelligence of many adult viewers.

Even American independent films are (with notable exceptions) starting to lose their edge, as the big players hold ever-increasing sway over their own art-house film units, set up to churn out Oscar contenders. Basically, it's getting harder to tell just when the commercial stuff ends, and the indies begin.

I watch roughly fifteen movies a week, and I can say honestly that most of the best recent narrative work I've seen comes from overseas. That is a sad statement for an industry that still holds sway over the globe in terms of movie output and distribution, but which used to be known also for the overall quality of what it produced.

So by all means, go see Sex and the City and Get Smart. Then, in your own time, watch The Decalogue, and see which of these titles really stays with you.

For more movie recommendations, see Best Movies by Farr.