The Ten Commandments, exact and uncompromising, literally cast in stone, continues to provide a source of moral conflict in contemporary society. In the ten part epic masterpiece, Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieslowski examines the dilemma of fundamental sin in the lives of ordinary Warsaw citizens. A scientist (Henryk Baranowski) puts his faith in science and logic to govern daily life (Decalogue I). A violinist (Krystyna Janda), unable to decide between her husband and her lover, defers the impossible decision to her husband’s attending physician (Aleksander Bardini) (Decalogue II). A lonely woman (Maria Pakulnis) imposes on an ex-lover (Daniel Olbrychski) on Christmas Eve to search for her missing lover (Decalogue III). An acting student (Adrianna Biedrzynska) discovers an ominous letter from her father (Janusz Gajos) (Decalogue IV).A cruel young man (Miroslaw Baka) wanders through the streets in search of a random victim (Decalogue V). A young postal clerk (Olaf Linde Lubaszenko) falls in love with a neighboring artist (Grazyna Szapolowska) whom he admires from a distance (Decalogue VI). A struggling student (Maja Barelkowska) kidnaps her biological daughter (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk) (Decalogue VII). An ethics professor (Maria Koscialkowska) is confronted with the culpability of her actions when asked to harbor a Jewish girl during World War II (Decalogue VIII). A married couple (Piotr Machalica and Ewa Blaszczyk) learn to deal with the husband’s impotence (Decalogue IX). Two brothers (Zbigniew Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr) inherit their father’s priceless stamp collection (Decalogue X).
Defined as Kieslowski’s experimental, transitional work for Polish television, Decalogue is, in itself, a monumental achievement: a remarkable examination of moral tale colliding, and often yielding, against the bounds of human frailty. Kieslowski crafts each episode with a distinctive signature, creating serenely indelible, spare, and poetic imagery: the dripping of candle wax against the icon of the Virgin Mary in Decalogue I; the point source lighting of Decalogue IV; the raw, monochromatic presentation (using sepia overlay) of Decalogue V; the saturation of colors in Decalogue VI; the perversion of physical exercise as self-punishment in Decalogue IX. Throughout the film, a ubiquitous, enigmatic man serves as a silent witness to the moral fissure, but remains uninvolved – a chronicler of humanity, an omniscient presence who does not pass judgment. Invariably, Decalogue proves to be a testament for the venerable director as well, a profound observation on the trials and tribulations of everyday life, reflected in complex ways – direct and abstruse – but all fundamentally, and infallibly, human.