The Critics on The Decalogue

The Decalogue was originally created for Polish Television in 1988-1989, garnering much attention for its ambition and craftsmanship. It then played at Venice and at other film festivals, gradually attaining a kind of legendary status. However, it was unavailable to most of the world for years, because it was held up in distribution limbo. When first released by Facets in 2001 for the very brief window remaining in its original contract, The Decalogue garnered instant praise, including being named the number-one film of the year by both The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. In its limited theatrical run, The Decalogue played the major U.S. markets to sell-out audiences and universal critical acclaim.

At each step of its release--first at festivals, then in limited theatrical runs, then on video, and now on DVD - many reviewers and critics weighed in on the significance of this important series. Here are some of the more notable commentaries.

"These films have the very real ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them...They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don't realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart."
--Stanley Kubrick, in the introduction to The Decalogue: The Ten Commandments, translated by Phil Cavendish and Susannah Bluh

"...Mr. Kieslowski's ambitious fresco offers a profound vision of human fallibility. Each film is a self-contained whole, but because of the interlocking structure major characters from one episode pop up in the background of others. The films are further linked by locale (all take place in the same Warsaw apartment complex); a haunting score by the composer Zbigniew Preisner; and an unnamed young man who appears silently, momentarily and inexplicably in each episode."
-Annette Insdorf, The New York Times

"Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, from 10 one-hour screenplays by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieslowski, achieved legendary status among American cinephiles in the years following the first showing of the series on Polish television in 1988, just before the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ostensibly based on the Ten Commandments, the 10 only slightly interlocking stories are neither religious nor political parables, but rather, slow-starting but ultimately absorbing character studies, often climaxed by ironic twists of fate and choice, filmed in a style that emphasizes the randomness and complexity of existence."
"On several occasions, God and sin seem to have been forcibly implanted in the dialogue as if to conceal the crisis of faith expressed by the very capriciousness of the 10 narratives. Kieslowski's artistic heritage is one of thoughtful skepticism about the human condition in an age of perpetual change, upheaval and anxiety. His death in March 1996, after open heart surgery at the age of 54, deprived us of a moralist and metaphysician of the medium in the mold of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky. Decalogue, perhaps more than any other of his artistic enterprises, may serve as a fitting memorial to his complex and compassionate sensibility."
-Andrew Sarris, The New Yorker

"The Decalogue is deserving of a place in that unique cadre of films, alongside such undisputed classics as Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, Last Tango in Paris, The Godfather, Fanny and Alexander, and Schindler's List, to name a few."
--James Berardinelli, www.movie-reviews.collossus.net

"None of these films is a simple demonstration of black and white moral issues....These are not characters involved in the simpleminded struggles of Hollywood plots. They are adults, for the most part outside organized religion, faced with situations in their own lives that require them to make moral choices. You shouldn't watch the films all at once, but one at a time. Then if you are lucky and have someone to talk with, you discuss them, and learn about yourself. Or, if you are alone, you discuss them with yourself, as so many of Kieslowski's characters do."
-Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

"The inspiration for The Decalogue can be seen as polemic or moralistic (though not a Marxist polemic, as some neo-conservatives may imagine they see). Why, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz wondered, are these time-tested Commandments, moral bedrock of Western culture, so hard to live up to? (Or, as Kieslowski says, 'For 6,000 years, these rules have been unquestionably right. And yet we break them every day.') Alienated, rebellious, ironic, Kieslowski uses the Commandments to throw the society and dramatis personae into relief-and constant moral criticism.

Yet The Decalogue, like all great films, transcends its apparent intent. It's one of those 'testament' films, like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Fanny and Alexander, in which a moviemaker summarizes his career and himself."
-Michael Wilmington, Film Comment

"All of the films in The Decalogue are easy and pleasurable to follow as stories, yet part of the excitement they generate stems from discussions about their meaning after their dramatic impact registers....Interestingly, postscreening discussions tend to be exegetical without ever becoming religious; some critics' patter to the contrary, Kieslowski belongs to the agnostic Bergman camp, not to the mystical Tarkovsky one."
-Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

Decalogue is distinguished by superb acting and expressive cinematography. But what makes it most unusual is the serious nature of its religious concerns. Although the Ten Commandments were the starting point for the series, Kieslowski and cowriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz resisted the temptation to illustrate each commandment through a simple morality tale.

Instead they explore the spirit of the commandments through complex contemporary fables, many of which seem linked to more than one commandment.
-David Sterritt, Christian Science Monitor

"While Kieslowski often delved into the discouraging sides of human nature, he was not out to judge his characters. He may have been inspired by the Ten Commandments to create The Decalogue, but his journeys into the basic paradoxes of religious faith vs. science, love vs. lust, life vs. death are not bound by the dictates. Each of the stories is numbered without any direct reference to a commandment. Any clearly defined ethical or moral edicts are up to the beholder."
-Nancy Kapitanoff, Pulse!