[Putting up some of my recent columns; this one was for the Sunday Business Standard]
Many DVD-enthusiasts I know have begun wading in the vast ocean that goes by the generic name “World Cinema”, and one of the first things they discover is the Three Colours trilogy, made by the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski (whose films are as simple and direct as his first name is daunting). But of late, I've noticed a growing interest among friends in an earlier Kieslowski work: the 10-part Dekalog (The Decalogue), which was made as a series of television episodes in the late 1980s. The reason for this interest, apparently, is director Vishal Bharadwaj, who has repeatedly referred to Dekalog as being a huge influence on his career as a film-buff and filmmaker.
Visually and thematically speaking, there is little to link Bharadwaj’s recent films (the energetic Kaminey in particular) with Kieslowski’s work, but that’s one of the charming things about movie influences – they don’t have to be blindingly obvious, with clearly connecting dots and “Aha!” moments. (Is anyone else fed up of the repeated channeling of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie whenever Bhardwaj’s latest is discussed?) It’s a reminder that entirely disparate films and filmmaking styles can call out to each other across space and time.
Kieslowski is, along with Satyajit Ray and Eric Rohmer, among the gentlest directors I know, and his best work is marked by a similarly intense, careful engagement with people’s lives and personal dilemmas. His movies aren’t cinematic in the flashier sense of the word – the camerawork is mostly at the service of narrative and dialogue, the editing is practically invisible – but they have a quiet, hypnotic quality that draws a viewer in; his use of close-ups is outstanding, and I can’t think of an instance of poor casting in any of his films. Each of the 10 films in Dekalog is around an hour long, set in a middle-class apartment block in Warsaw, and each of them is a modern-day reworking of one of the Ten Commandments. Thus, “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” becomes a story about a staunchly rationalist professor whose over-reliance on the data provided by his computer leads to tragedy. “Thou shalt not kill” becomes a study of a young murderer facing the death penalty (in an episode that would later be expanded into a longer feature titled A Short Film About Killing). And “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” is turned into a story about a conversation between a Holocaust survivor and the professor who had once refused to give her shelter. But you don't have to keep a specific commandment in mind while watching the film it corresponds to – this isn't a game of "connect the dots".
Kieslowski was agnostic himself, but he was very interested in the relationship between people and their faith, as well as the concepts of sin and punishment. The stories in Dekalog aren't morality tales with an obvious “message” or lesson; there is nothing one-dimensional about the situations they depict, many of which fall well outside the ambit of the Bible's Commandments. In one episode, for instance, a woman considers aborting the child she has conceived out of wedlock, but only if a doctor can assure her that her ill husband has a good chance of survival. What adds another shade to this story is that the doctor’s response is coloured by a tragic incident from his own past. As this painful story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the director is more interested in human beings than in stone tablets.
Dekalog can be slow going at times, especially for viewers who get impatient with movies driven more by content than form, or built mainly around dialogue. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to see all the films over a short period of time; a better idea would be to spread the experience over a fortnight or a month. And as a companion piece to Dekalog 1, I also recommend David Volach’s outstanding film My Father, My Lord, which I wrote about here. Both movies are about a father-son relationship that ends in tragedy and both are critiques of rigidity of thought - but they approach the subject from opposite ends of the spectrum and complement each other perfectly.