The Decalogue (1987) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

It is extraordinary that a fairly obscure Polish mini-series from 1987 is now considered one of the greatest achievements in the history of film. IMBd viewers rate it an incredible 9.3 out of 10, and it's now available on DVD.

The director/writer was the famous Krzysztof Kieslowski ("Three Colors", "The Double Life of Veronique"), and each of the ten one-hour episodes is loosely based on one of the Ten Commandments. Although Kieslowski is interested in the Christian perspective, he isn't interested in teaching any moral lessons. Rather, he is interested in posing the moral and ethical questions that we have to face in today's world, and showing how complicated the issues can be. In fact, each of the episodes is like one of those theoretical questions that they pose in college ethics classes. (If you have to kill the baby to save the mother ....... )

Here is an example. A man may or may not be dying. His wife really has to know, because she is pregnant with another man's child. If the husband is going to live, she plans to terminate the pregnancy. If the husband is going to die, she'll have the baby. She explains the story to her husband's doctor, and he wants no part of playing God in determining the baby's life.

In another, a university ethics professor is confronted with an ethical problem of her own - she is visited by a Jewish woman who came to her for aid 50 years earlier in Hitler's era. The professor and her husband were deeply religious and had to choose between lying before God about whether the Jewish girl was their daughter. Or was there even more to it than that?

In another, a daughter opens up a letter from her long-dead mother which says that her father is not really her father. This awakens the girl's Electra complex, and she attempts to seduce the father. Except ..... well, there is a double-twist surprise ending that pulls you here and there in your attitude toward the characters.

They're pretty much all like that - tales of moral ambiguity in a complex world, filled with tons of twists, either in your moral attitudes or the plot, or both. Kieslowski wants you to understand that everybody is right and everybody is wrong, and that only tiny degrees and subtle nuances define rights and wrongs.

The most praised are episode 5, about a brutal murderer and his insecure attorney, and episode 8, the one about the ethics professor.

If I may tread against the grain a bit, I think these short films are somewhat overrated.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying they aren't great. They are.

Each is a masterpiece of complex storytelling in the deepest European tradition, and you'll be completely blown away by the profundity of the premise in each case, and by the filmmaker's unwillingness to provide simplistic solutions and explanations.


female: none.

There is some brief male nudity in the Christmas episode ("keep holy the lord's day").

As literature, they take their rightful places among the finest stories of the century. The scripts are tremendous.

As films, however, they are not always that impressive. Some of the photography is imaginative, and there are some truly stark emotional moments drained out of the images and music, but some of his set-ups are trite, his lighting isn't always sophisticated, and there are some places where I almost fell asleep waiting for the scene to be completed when the point was already sealed and delivered.

Let me soften that criticism with a bit of genuine praise for Kieslowski. As far as I can see, he never adds any artificial bullshit symbols to his films, ala Tarkowsky or Bergman. There are no hooded death characters, or people walking through water while carrying candles, none of that pretentious self-consciously arty stuff. Kieslowski drags all his deep meaning out of real people doing everyday things in believable ways - people making real choices about real dilemmas that any of us might also face.

And that's probably the most impressive thing about his work - that all the situations seem so humdrum, but carry layers and layers of meaning within them.

Here are outside links to in-depth analyses of each episode:

DVD info from Amazon.

The DVD is too dark, the aspect ratio is an ordinary 4:3, and there are no extra features.

It is in Polish, with English subtitles.

Commandment 1

Commandment 2

Commandment 3

Commandment 4

Commandment 5

Commandment 6

Commandment 7

Commandment 8

Commandment 9

Commandment 10

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century. Berardinelli 4/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 9.3, possibly the highest rating of all time.
My guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this series of films is a B. Even if you hate watching subtitled foreign films, some or all of these will get to you deep inside. The DVD is unimpressive.

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