The name of the late Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski is not a familiar one to most American moviegoers, but among critics, he has a reputation as one of the great directors of our time.

Kieslowski, who died in 1996 in Warsaw at age 54, was an ironic moralist, a man deeply concerned with the complexities of human relationships, the strange importance of coincidences in human life, and the wonders accomplished by a providential Reality that intrudes into the human condition. His fantasy film, "The Double Life of Veronique" (1991), and his magical trilogy, "Blue," "White," and "Red" (1993-1994), captivated audiences. ("Red," the last movie he made before his death, won him an Academy Award nomination for best director). Written as well as directed by Kieslowski, those movies are a rich blend of mystery, paradox, and irony, utterly unlike most American or European films.

Kieslowski was Polish, and Poland is a Catholic country, but can Kieslowski be called a Catholic director? He was not a Catholic propagandist. He did not promote Catholic theology or doctrine. The Church is almost invisible in the movies he made over a three-decade cinematic career. Yet at bottom, his sensibility was profoundly Catholic--and Polish Catholic at that.

He had a rare gift for combining the gloom of Slavic pessimism with the sometimes bittersweet laughter of Polish Catholicism. The blending of this sensibility with extraordinary directorial skill and story telling instincts makes Kieslowski unique - and a man to cope with when the question of religion and film arises. Even though his movies revealed only the most tangential relationship with the institutional Church, he was one of the great Catholic filmmakers of the century.

Kieslowski's revealed his implicit Catholic sensibility most revealingly in "Decalogue," a series of 10 hour-length television films he made in 1988. Each is a fictional meditation on one of the 10 Commandments. Few Americans have seen "Decalogue," as 10 hours of short films is not the sort of thing that most movie theaters can cope with. Fortunately they are now available in five videotapes.

One's first impression on viewing these films--and so powerful were they that I could not watch more than two of them in an evening--is that there never could be anything like them on American television and probably never will be. They are too serious, too mysterious, too ironic, and too comic for an American network.

And at heart the 10 films are also profoundly religious. Some critics have complained that "Decalogue" uses the commandments not to teach moral lessons but as hooks on which to hang stories. As with Kieslowski's other movies, there is nothing overtly spiritual about the movies' content. But Kieslowski was not trying to persuade his viewers to keep the commandments. He instead invited them into his stories so that they would be illuminated by what unfolded and reflect afterwards on the insights into the agony of human decision-making that the stories revealed.

The films also present a richly textured picture of Polish society during the period between the beginning of the Solidarity movement and the final collapse of Poland's Soviet-supported socialist dictatorship. That period of social, political, and economic transformation, as Poland moved from communism to democracy, was also a time of great artistic ferment. In these movies there are signs of poverty everywhere--yet everyone owns a car. The vast, drab apartment block in which the stories are set looks like a rabbit warren, a concrete slum, yet the apartments inside appear comfortable, almost luxurious, and some of the complex's residents are prosperous enough to fly to foreign countries regularly.

Polish society as Kieslowski portrays it is still stiff and formal and authoritarian. The sick in hospitals can receive visits from their relatives only once a week. People rarely smile. Everyone smokes (Kieslowski's own early death of a heart attack may have been related to his heavy use of cigarettes).

The Poland of "Decalogue" is obviously very different from America, yet Kieslowski shows that the problems of creating and maintaining human intimacy are universal--and often painful. In most of the stories even nature itself is grim. The sun doesn't shine much, the trees are bare, and snow lies on the ground. Several of the tales are unbearably harsh, while others are almost incredibly hopeful - when the Reality that operates through seeming chance events intervenes to draw straight with crooked lines. Irony, sometimes but not always comic, abounds in these films.

Thus it is not surprising that, although "Decalogue" is not overtly Catholic in any way, the Vatican in 1995 named it one of the 45 great movies of the 20th century. For those seriously interested in cinema as art or in the Catholic imagination, this and the rest of Kieslowski's films are not to be missed.

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