Sunday, July 29, 2007

40. Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Dekalog, siedem (Decalogue 7)" (1989): Stealing as a metaphor


The brilliant Polish director--whom I had the good fortune to meet in Bangalore at an International Film Festival in 1982--made a series of ten 1-hour long short films, each dedicated to one of the Ten Commandments, handed down to Moses from God. These are commandments given to a man venerated by Christians, Muslims and Jews. Decalogue 7 naturally deals with the Seventh Commandment--"Thou shall not steal." (This is often listed as the Seventh commandment for Roman Catholics and Lutherans, while it is listed as the Eighth commandment for the Jews and Orthodox Christians). Kieslowski and his co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz (both Roman Catholics, and hence Decalogue 7, not 8) weave a modern day story that entertains, while asking disturbing and provoking questions--theological, social and psychological--of the viewer.

The film can be evaluated at several levels. It offers several layers of meaning, teasing the viewer as it progresses.

Kidnapping your own daughter from the ownership of your mother is a bizarre situation. Two women want to own a young child--the biological mother and the grandmother who yearned to "suckle" another. Interestingly the script looks at three generations of the same sex. The males seem to be the outsiders, yet balanced in comparison to the females in the movie.

"Thou shall not steal" is the commandment that is apparently broken. The film leads you to believe that the mother has "kidnapped" her own child. The film seems to argue quite elegantly that the real thief is the grandparent not the "kidnapping" mother. The "kidnapping" is symbolic--the police is mentioned not seen. The law presented in the film is moral one, not a civil one. In the end, it is the natural affection the child yearns for that is stolen, not by an individual but by circumstances (the state?).Is this a veiled criticism of Poland, the effect of communism on the young emerging democracy? What would have happened if the "stealing" within and without the movie did not take place? The film begins with the sound of the child crying that can be heard outside the walls of the house; the film ends with the silent cry of the child in the open, without walls and yet the cry cannot be heard, only seen (harking back to Rod Steiger's silent cry at the end of The Pawnbroker). Is fleeing to Canada (read: Western capitalism) a better option than staying back in the overgrown, ummowed gardens (with dilapidated merry-go-rounds) of Poland? Is making teddy bears a better life than taking care of your child? Is he making an argument for "stealing" becoming honorable for the cause of freedom?

The film leaves you with more questions than answers, yet providing a mature level of entertainment for the intelligent viewer. Having met Kieslowski in Bangalore, India, in 1982, soon after he made Camera Buff, a film that did not have the sparkle and maturity of his later works, I could never guess that he would go on to make the Three colors trilogy and Decalogue. These later works make you wonder at the ambiguity of his later work--the beguiling smile of a Mona Lisa as he deals with religion, politics, morals with a twinkle in his eye.This episode may be seem to present an unusual story but what a masterful way to present it. Innocence is limited to one character in the entire film: the child. Just one word describes the episode, brilliant in philosophy and in cinema, thanks partly to cinematographer Dariusz Kuc.

Theologically analyzed, the film offers more for reflection. The subject of stealing goods is arguably covered by the 10th commandment "thou shalt not covet thy neighbours goods" and the seventh commandment is often subtly interepreted as "thou shalt not kidnap" (read Wikepedia on "Ten Commandments" quoting a Jewish Rabbi, Rashi). This is probably the reason why the film is all about kidnapping and not about stealing goods which is dealt by the director and screenplay writer in Decalogue 10--which is all about stealing goods and about "coveting thy neighbor's goods"--confusing many critics who missed the distinction being made on screen. This is a fine example of cinema that invites you to read more after seeing the film (and revise your own judgement). Pieseiewicz and Kiesolwski had done their homework!

P.S. Decalogue 2 and 5 has been reviewed on this blog.

2 comments :

AmiDA said...

one of the finest films i have ever seen..
would like to see others in the series..

Prasanna said...

Indeed the entire series is fantastic .. dekalog 1 was a thundering start .. about killing was to me the best in the lot ... what was cramped seamlessly in a 45 minute episode was simply unbelievable. That said, is there a place in Bangalore where I could buy Kiieslowski's movie titles (DVD/blu ray)? I couldn't find one surfing :-)

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