Giving `Dekalog' its due

Film: Charles Theatre completes the picture with a screening of late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's 10-part masterpiece.

May 11, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Krzysztof Kieslowski died too young, at 54, in 1996. By then, the Polish director already had made an international name for himself with films such as "The Double Life of Veronique" (1991) and the "Red," "White" and "Blue" trilogy of 1993 and 1994.

But "Dekalog," a 10-part film series Kieslowski directed for Polish television, was what first brought the director to the attention of audiences and critics. And it has rarely been screened in theaters since it was broadcast in 1988. Kieslowski completists have been forced to watch the most significant work of his career on videotapes of limited scope and quality.

Tonight, Baltimore filmgoers can join an elite group of Americans who will have the chance to see the "Dekalog" series the way it should be seen -- on the big screen with Kieslowski's gifts as a scenarist given their full due. Over the following four Tuesdays, the Charles Theatre will devote one of its new four screens to showing "Dekalog," two segments at a time.

The series will fill in a crucial blank for admirers of Kieslowski's patient, observant and triumphantly humanist brand of filmmaking, and they provide a satisfying sense of continuity to the career of a director whose life work was to illuminate human connectedness.

Loosely based on the Ten Commandments, "Dekalog" is a series of 10 one-hour films, all of them taking place in the same Warsaw apartment complex. As with his feature films, Kieslowski wrote the "Dekalog" films with Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Neither man was an observant Catholic;the team approached the core material in a metaphorical, rather than exegetical sense.

"In the Old Testament, there is a punishing God," Kieslowski told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995. "In the New, he was a good old man forgiving trespasses. The competition for God today is not another God, but things which compete with the idea of God. So we started looking at things that some people found more important than God. We found a very simple conflict between faith and the brain, the conflict between the head and the heart."

Tonight's films are loosely based on the first two commandments ("Thou shalt have no other God but me" and "Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain"), and, consistent with Kieslowski's explanation, seem only obliquely connected to their referents. In Part I, the father of a precocious young boy is forced to rethink his worship of technology and mathematical certainty. In Part II, a woman whose husband is dying puts his doctor in a God-like position, a role the physician is only too eager to play.

Both films unfold slowly, as was Kieslowski's wont, concentrating on the characters' faces, furrowed with guilt and worry and the freight of past sins, and their attenuated relationship with each other in the sterile environs they inhabit. Audiences looking for literal translations of God's edicts will be sorely disappointed in "Dekalog," the remaining segments of which take similar liberties with the commandments themselves. In Kieslowski's profoundly compassionate hands, these stories weren't mere illustrations but meditations: on God's absence in the world as well as the unlikely ways he reveals himself.

The reason "Dekalog" is so rarely seen -- only the odd art-house and festival has shown the series in its entirety -- is that it is prohibitively expensive. Exhibitors must not only pay a hefty rental fee, but they must also kick in a percentage of profits for the licensing fee to Polish TV. The Charles already went out on a financial limb for its spectacular renovation and expansion. The theater has gone to even more trouble and expense to present Baltimore with Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Dekalog," an act of generosity worth applauding.

Pub Date: 5/11/99

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