Old Rules for a New World

The Dekalog highlights the ambivalence of moral absolutes

Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Dekalog is the cinematic equivalent of a short-story collection, and it displays the chief characteristics — good and bad — of compaction. Each of the 10 one-hour movies is precise and shapely, and every gesture and detail is vested with meaning. Several of the stories are startlingly full of emotional punch.

But The Dekalog is like a big house made up of small rooms, and the close quarters, while elegant in themselves, sometimes crowd the characters and seem a little short of air. In part, this tightness is because The Dekalog was made to be shown as a series on Polish television. It first appeared in the West at the 1989 Venice Film Festival, but it has never before been shown in the United States.

At the heart of each of The Dekalog's 10 tales is one of the thou shalts of the Ten Commandments. Around each commandment's moral kernel Kieslowski spins a modern tale of life in Warsaw in 1987 — the last days of that gray city's long Russian winter. All the stories are set in the same apartment block — a great beast of Stalinist concrete — and characters from one story glancingly pop up in another. These threads of continuity help to hold together what is fundamentally a disjointed enterprise. The Dekalog has no narrative arc beyond the artfully reduced Ten Commandments, and they are not a narrative anyway, but a list of moral prescriptions.

Warsaw, in Kieslowski's rendering, is chilly and bleak but surprisingly modern. Everyone seems to have a telephone, and the apartments, while modest, are far from primitive. There is food on the table. There are answering machines, home computers, toys for Christmas. There are skiing vacations, and trips to Canada and Melbourne. Poland at the end of the Cold War appears to be a land neither of plenty nor of grating want. Politics do not figure overtly in The Dekalog. There are no references to communism, Solidarity, the police state, the Soviets. Neighbors who spy on one another do so purely for erotic titillation.

If Kieslowski's characters belong to the Eastern Bloc bourgeoisie, the moral quandaries he sets for them are universal. The most searing of them arises in Dekalog 9, in which Roman, a handsome surgeon, is told that for medical reasons (the film doesn't elaborate) he can no longer have sex with his wife.

She is young and strikingly beautiful, and side by side in bed they have what seems to be a rational discussion about their marriage. Can an intimate union between two people survive the end of sex between them?

“Love is in one's heart, not between one's legs,” she tells Roman. “The things we have are more important than the things we don't have.”

That is an adult accounting of the matter, but it doesn't satisfy him. He wonders if she isn't entitled to an affair. She seems gently to dismiss the idea, but, soon after, a strange man starts phoning their home. Then Roman spots his wife with an athletic young blond man. Roman taps the telephone. He waits outside the door while they have sex. Finally he hides in the closet during one of their assignations — only to hear his wife tell the young man she will no longer see him. But …

The Dekalog is a flurry of buts. Things are seldom what they seem, plots twist unexpectedly and characters are forever misunderstanding and misjudging — details, situations, each other. Kieslowski, despite the delicacy and low volume of his writing and direction, is the flintiest of realists, and he does not seal his episodes with pretty little bow ties. He accepts moral ambiguity and the notion of managing rather than solving problems as basic truths of the human estate.

Kieslowski's calm moral studiousness is essentially European. It is at odds with that basic American impulse to separate the good guys from the bad, and then get to the bottom of things and straighten it all out. The Dekalog leavens its characters with good and bad, strength and weakness, and it places them in situations in which even they do not know how those qualities of personality will play themselves out.

Who, for example, is the villain in Dekalog 7, in which a young woman, Majka, kidnaps her own daughter — from her mother, who had raised them both? Majka bore her daughter, Ania, when she was 16, encouraged by her mother, who wanted another child but could not have one.

The spectacle of parents using children to fulfill themselves is deeply distasteful, yet the older woman's love for the little girl — who calls her grandmother “mummy” and insists on calling her real mother “Majka” — is palpable and nearly redemptive.

Majka, meanwhile, makes a poor heroine — running off to the woods with the child, issuing threats and ultimatums to her parents over the telephone, trying, in the end, to flee the country with her bewildered daughter slung over her shoulder like a sack of flour — but she generates enough pathos to be weirdly sympathetic. By the end, it is plain that the real issue is not the custody of Ania, but Majka's embittered and perhaps irreparably damaged relations with her mother.

Kieslowski offers these flashes of truth with an almost brutal lack of apology, and over 10 hours they can be hard to take. The great difficulty with realistic film is that it too closely resembles real life, which divides, as Woody Allen joked in Annie Hall, between the miserable and the horrible.

Yet even if The Dekalog must be taken in controlled doses, it repays the effort of absorbing it — not because it offers moral guidance, but because it gives dour reassurance that people face the same basic moral question they have always faced, the question that lies at the heart of human civilization: How to balance the wild lusts of the heart — for sex and violence and savage freedom — against the restraining codes and customs that make it possible for people to live together in peace?

There is no answer to that question, and The Dekalog does not purport to make one. Instead, it shows people pressing on despite their sorrows and confusions. That is all it can show, because that is all they can do.

The Dekalog continues through May 29, screening in two-part segments, at the Roxie Cinema in

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