A confession: I couldn't make it all the way through. Not for lack of trying, it was just too busy of a weekend. But four hours was long enough time to get a taste of this melancholic masterpiece, just rereleased by the Criterion Collection in all its dreary late–Communist glory two months ago.
Dekalog is Krzysztof Kieślowski's magnum opus, created in 1989 for Polish television. The ten–episode series, also known as The Decalogue, is modeled after the Ten Commandments in both theme and structure (yes, it's ten hours long). Even though it's called a television series, it views more like ten medium–length films, as each vignette stands alone without connection to the others.
Each movie, Dekalog I–X, revolves around a housing project in Warsaw. The huge gray buildings loom over the surrounding blocks, starting in their standardization and chilliness (also strangely reminiscent of the high rises?). None of the characters interact with characters from another chapter, although they do walk in and out of each other's stories as background extras and elevator ride companions. Kieślowski employed nine different cinematographers to magnify this difference in depth and style.
Dekalog I follows a boy named Paweł and his professor father after the death of his mother, as they pass the days computing physics problems on computers. This precocious youngster created a program of his mother's schedule so he can track her former daily activities throughout the day, while discussing the meaning of death and God with his aunt. This first chapter in the season focuses on the limits of blind faith in science, and the ways in which tragedy can shake these deeply held convictions.
It's important to note that each film doesn't comment on an exact commandment, instead speaking to the morality of all ten as a whole. While some might have a direct message like the science vs. God commentary that matches up with the First Commandment's forbiddance of idolatry, it becomes constraining to search for the distilled Mosaic Law in each of the pieces.