Powerful Kieslowski series `The Decalogue' scores a 10

Movie review

XXXX "The Decalogue," with Krystyna Janda, Maja Komorowska, Daniel Olbrychski, Miroslaw Baka, Anna Polony. Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, from a script by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz. 562 minutes. Varsity. No rating; includes adult subject matter. In Polish with English subtitles.

Since Krzysztof Kieslowski's death four years ago, his 10-part Polish miniseries, "The Decalogue," has grown in stature - so much so that this meditative, cumulatively powerful 12-year-old production is finally getting a Seattle theatrical run.

It's played here before in festival situations and on The Sundance Channel, but the Varsity's two-week run gives local moviegoers a chance to savor it on the big screen. The 35mm presentation will be broken into five parts, with the first two episodes playing as a double bill tonight through Sunday, and the third and fourth installments scheduled for Monday through Wednesday. The fifth and sixth sections begin a three-day run Thursday.

The marathon was inspired by the Ten Commandments in the Bible. Each story is a modern illustration of a commandment, although these are not literal interpretations. Kieslowski once said that the only message is to "live carefully, with your eyes open, and try not to cause pain."

The opening episode is a tragic story about a computer-savvy 11-year-old boy (Wojciech Klata) and his distracted father (Henryk Baranowski). It's loosely based on "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me." The God here is the computer, which the father trusts to tell him when the ice on a nearby lake is safe for skating.

In a chilling scene reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now," a broken ink bottle suggests that this trust may be misplaced. While the audience may be far ahead of Baranowski's character, Kieslowski's stark, poetic style captures his devastation when he grasps what has happened. As do the performances of a well-chosen cast, including Maja Komorowska (the widowed heroine of Zanussi's "Year of the Quiet Sun") as the boy's worried aunt.

Playing with this episode is a story about a pregnant woman (Krystyna Janda) whose husband (Olgierd Lukaszewicz) is apparently dying. It was inspired by "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," and focuses on the woman's strained relationship with a laconic medical consultant (Aleksander Bardini).

She insists that Americans would tell her whether her husband was dying; he keeps informing her that he knows nothing. She says she'd like to run him over. For some reason, he resists when she offers him a lift instead.

Janda, the chain-smoking reporter of Andrzej Wajda's "Man of Marble," uses her cigarettes for a different purpose here. Whether she's irritating the consultant with her smoking, or almost starting a blaze with them, or simply using them to express her insecurity (she also breaks glasses and tears the leaves off a plant), Janda brings a singular intensity to the role.

The Monday-through-Wednesday program is made up of episodes based on "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (on Christmas Eve a woman tricks her ex-lover into spending the night away from his family) and "Honor thy father and thy mother" (a close father-daughter relationship changes when a family secret is revealed).

Thursday's double bill is drawn from "Thou shalt not kill" (a young law student defends a murderer) and "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (a postal worker is obsessed with a promiscuous woman). These episodes were later expanded and released as the features, "A Short Film About Killing" (which won the Special Jury Prize at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival) and "A Short Film About Love."

Still to come are "Thou shalt not steal" and "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" (Nov. 12-14) and "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife" and "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods" (Nov. 15-16).

Not all the stories are of equal weight. Some prefer the "false witness" episode to all the others. "Thou shalt not kill" is a strong, timely questioning of the basis of capital punishment. "Thou shalt not commit adultery" has comic touches, yet it may be the most emotionally gripping entry in the series. As for tonight's program, it's hard to imagine a more tantalizing introduction to the series.

(Note: Kieslowski will also be represented by a new film to be shown in the Polish Film Festival at the Broadway Performance Hall. Years ago, he wrote the script for "The Big Animal," a charming fable about conformity which Jerzy Stuhr has now directed. It plays at 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.)