Since these are Lenten reflections, I feel it is incumbent upon me to make a confession. Here it is: I hate going to the movies. There, I said it. I feel so much better.
But I do hate going to the movies. The typical cinemaplex is an amusement park filled with the sickly glow of a ghastly rainbow of neon lights, gigantic coming attractions posters, oversized and overpriced popcorn and soda, video game arcades—the sights and sounds of consumerism, a locus of overstimulation and capitalism on steroids. When recently I took two of my children to see the first installment of The Hobbit in an IMAX presentation, the special effects and CGI combined with the overwhelming stimuli of 3-D resulted in my feeling nauseous for hours after the film ended. It was like being stuck in a revolving door for an eternity, an existential crisis so extreme even Dante would have quailed at depicting it in the Inferno. Some things are just too horrible to consider.
This all came home to me this week as I reviewed, literally re-viewed, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece The Dekalog.
Kieslowski made the film—actually ten one-hour films—for Polish television in 1988, during the waning days of the failed attempt at a Soviet empire. It is extraordinary enough that he was able to make a series of films thematically treating the Ten Commandments (the Dekalog of the title) under Communism, and even more extraordinary that the image of Pope John Paul II plays a not-insignificant symbolic role in two of the films (numbers I and VI). But what is especially compelling is that Kieslowski was able to make such incredible art and tell such insightful stories on a budget (reportedly $100,000 for all ten episodes) that wouldn’t even cover the food and amenities for the garden variety Hollywood film.
Though the films take the Ten Commandments into their thematic structure, it would be wrong to read each film in a one-to-one correspondence with any particular commandment. Rather, issues related to the Commandments weave in and out of the stories, much in the same way, as Rene Girard (among others) has pointed out, the Commandments are unthinkable apart from one another. How is murder, for instance, able to be isolated from covetousness? How is adultery not only a violation of one’s duty to one’s spouse, but an outright rejection of God?
In addition to the thematic element, the films are held together in their setting: they all center on the same apartment complex. However, the characters change with each film, and rarely do characters from one film appear in another in any significant way, the only exception being an unnamed character (played by Artur Barkis) who inhabits most of the films as a kind of silent observer, angel-like in his witness of characters who struggle with moral, existential, and personal crises of one kind or another.
The films, written by Kieslowski and his regular collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, meticulously examine moral, existential, personal, but above all spiritual problems through intimate camera work, rife with symbolism and figurative shots, combined with insightful and meaningful dialogue. In addition, Kieslowski draws deeply moving performances from his company of actors, a company refreshingly lacking in the glitz and glamour so appallingly laid bare (in so many ways) in the recent Academy Awards festival of egocentricity and superficiality.
The Dekalog is not something one watches for entertainment. Instead, these are films that demand—and deserve—our contemplation. They open into spaces of metaphysical introspection and existential self-examination as well as spiritual reflection. They are deeply rewarding meditations on being-in-the-world.
Spero columnist Michael Martin PhD teaches English at Marygrove College. Follow him on Twitter: @pater_familiar.
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