decalogue i – “i am the lord thy god, thou shalt not have other gods before me.”
we’re off to a great start in decalogue i, an episode as involving, poignant, layered, and inspiring as kieslowski’s later cinematic works. it introduces the warsaw apartment complex where the decalogue takes place, and the young man character played by artur barcis who appears in nine of the ten shorts. followed by a middle-aged woman watching a tv screen that is showing news footage of school kids.
decalogue i tells the story of a college professor and his brilliant son while mom is working on another continent. the middle-aged woman we saw in the opening is actually the dad’s sister, a bit of an exposition character. through her, we learn while they both grew up catholic, the dad had learnt to measure and calculate everything in his life while the aunt remains religious. this is further illustrated in the scenes following pavel, the kid, upon seeing a neighborhood dog frozen to death and questions both his dad and his aunt about mortality. dad gives a scientific, biological answer while the aunt introduces faith and spirituality to pavel.
young pavel, living with his dad, is in the middle of both sides. while we see him calculating chess moves, formulating the time zone of where his mom is, or using his own computer (dad and son each has a computer, though dad’s is supposedly a higher functioning one than pavel’s) to manipulate doors and facets in the apartment, he’s also curious and interested in aspects of life that he can’t understand, as any healthy young person should. another interesting sequence has the pov shots of pavel watching his dad lecturing in class except through his eyes, we never see his dad on the screen as a whole. from pavel’s point of view, his dad is always obscured and covered by objects.
as with most kieslowski films, and unlike most movies we see, he’s not interested in issues or messages. decalogue i doesn’t sink to science vs. religion. it’s first and foremost about the characters as real people. kieslowski knows that people are more complicated than figureheads. notice dad’s reaction to the aunt finding a church for pavel and pavel’s desire to go. no one’s standing around with their ideals above their heads.
on a basic cinematic level, dialogue i works better than most feature length films. kieslowski and his co-writer krzysztof piesiewicz created such strong characters that the second half is extremely effective. though one scene with the dad in the church at the end is a bit too on the nose, the bookend scenes of the aunt seeing pavel on tv resonates, especially after we find out the whole story. kieslowski excels in telling melodramatic stories in such low key way that emotions and poignancy come through without being heavy handed and condescending.
with the commandment attached afterwards, it’s easy to conclude that decalogue i is about the danger of worshipping technology (computer) as the new god. though it’s even more relevant now than when the film was made, it would be simple minded to read the film that way. considering the sequence of events leading up to the climax, decalogue i doesn’t take one side over the other. as the aunt tells pavel, the scientific calculations “may seem more reasonable, but it doesn’t rule out god.” the yang to this yin is illustrated by the fact that after reviewing the result of their experiments, dad goes out to check the ice personally.
and i think what the film shows, and what kieslowski was feeling at the time, is the general feeling of helplessness in life and communist poland. fate (or the divine plan if you prefer) is a frequent theme in kieslowski’s works. whether one believes in religion, faith, or science, there is something above all those things that we cannot control. the fact that we can simply watch but cannot affect the outcome is helplessness, like us in the audience, the film camera, the filmmaker, a religious deity, the virgin mary, angels, or that mysterious young man sitting by the fire.
instead of providing an answer or telling you how you should think, it simply enlightens you through its humanistic story, to make you think for yourself long after it’s over. there are no quick and easy solutions, but one should always remember that when “one is alive, it’s a present. a gift.”