The Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988, Poland)
In 1995 The Vatican released a list of what it considered to be the greatest achievements in film. Among these titles was the 1988 Polish film: The Decalogue, directed by the master filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski. The film is comprised of ten episodes exploring the themes of the Ten Commandments as they intersect the lives of people living in a contemporary Polish apartment complex. The series elevated Kieslowski’s status as one of the great filmmakers of our times and it also sparked great critical and theological discussion. Even the late great film critic Roger Ebert offered a special class on these extraordinary films at The University of Chicago.
As we celebrate the lives of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II on the occasion of their canonizations, the first film in the series, Decalogue I, is worth revisiting. It merits attention because the story delves into the question of the existence of God and the persistence of faith in an increasingly secularized Polish context, a subject close to Pope John Paul II’s heart. Moreover, a photograph of Pope John Paul II acts as a catalyst in the film to raise just such questions.
Decalogue I visualizes the story of a young precocious boy named Pawel. His innocent world is shaken when he discovers a dead dog frozen in the snow outside the apartment complex. Where he lives This leads him to ponder in greater depth questions about life, death, science and faith. In this inquiry, he seeks the counsel of his father and his aunt. His father, a university professor, interested in science and linguistics, guides him in a more secular direction where life is seen in mostly materialistic terms. His aunt, a devout Catholic, wishes to lead him in the direction of faith and a world open to God’s presence.
The film offers no simplistic answers. Each character’s worldview is both respected and challenged as it presses up against unfathomable mystery. What is perhaps most impressive, however, is how Kieslowski creates a world open to vastly different interpretations. Haunting music, a mysterious stranger, spilled ink, each could be interpreted as ordinary or coincidental occurrences, or they could be seen as thoughtful symbols. For Catholics these subtle moments are easily seen through a sacramental worldview where objects and actions take on deeper significance.
Whatever ones views on life’s most challenging questions, Pawel’s innocent question asked of his aunt, “Where is God?” receives one of the most compelling answers recorded on film. Cinema was made for moments like these; thus, it is no wonder the Vatican praised it so highly.