Friday, May 21, 2010

Decalogue: Part I "Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me"

Clearly, my intention to write about Part I was interrupted in November. And December. And January. And so on. But I think, at last, I'll be continuing on with my watching of, and writing about, the Decalogue. Part II will probably be put off until July, until after the school quarter ends, but I will at least begin now!

Part I, in brief summary, describes the relationship between a father and a son. The father is an essentially agnostic university professor, who is incredibly excited by new developments in computer technology. He believes that computers will be able to predict and solve many of life's difficulties - no more guessing. The father and son have a close, harmonious relationship - and they are, in fact, the two primary characters in the film. There is an aunt, too, a devout woman, who is close to her nephew and would like her nephew to enter the Church. She and the father represent two worldviews, I believe, one that holds that the material world is all there is - a material world that is predictable and controllable - and one that embraces something beyond this world in the form of Catholicism. Also central to the film is a computer, which is programmed to predict ice's thickness and various other things, an icy pond, and the boy's new ice skates.

So, some reflections on the film:

Oh my - I. loved. it. And I don't really even know what to say next to begin to express why I did love it so much. I think, first, I just loved the father-son relationship. So simple and
unstudied, both of them, I believed their relationship absolutely. Child actors can be awful, but I loved this little boy. His expression as he was watching a pigeon on his window in the beginning, his face when he was asking his father questions about death, his spontaneous joy - kissing his father on the cheek after they won a chess game together. The film itself felt perfectly constructed - the way it was bookended by the black and white tv footage, and then from the opening shot of the ground to a mysterious man by a fire near the pond (a man whose presence is never explained), suddenly staring at me and then looking away, to the sudden upward shot of the apartment building - a series of crosses that towered over me. And then after the opening, a simple morning routine of the father and the boy, and the set-up of the life of these two, and then the introduction of the aunt, the conflict of the two worldviews between the siblings -- all the way to the devastating conclusion.

The mother is not dead, but she is not present in the film, except as she is in her son's thoughts. We do not know why she isn’t there. We are, I think, simply getting a small view into these people’s lives, and we don’t know everything – we only know what we see in their reactions and actions. We know that the mother is dear to the boy and that she is absent and that he longs for her, for being connected to her. It’s enough to know that because it tells us something about who the boy is and what he is thinking.

On another note, I loved how the boy is portrayed as precocious, but never in a way that felt false – his intelligence is still simple and childlike, very much un-adult. When he is asking questions of his father about the death of a dog he's seen, for example, they are very mature questions, and yet when his father asks what prompted his questioning, his eyes brims with tears and he describes the dog very simply, in a way that a child would.

I am in awe at how Kieslowski achieves the atmosphere that he does – this film is not a visually, sensually dense one – not in the same way that Double Life of Veronique is, for example, but it manages to totally immerse me in its world. The suspense and dread it so subtly builds are almost unbearable, and it is, beautifully, a kind of suspense that is a building uneasiness, like something that has been like a weight growing in your mind or a shadow that begins to intrude on your vision more and more, rather than a certain knowledge of coming tragedy. And this same dread and unease were there when I watched the film a second, even when I knew exactly what was going to happen.

And oh, I was so much with the father in those final scenes – I was amazed that he and the boy had so captured my emotions and heart so quickly, so simply, in such a short film. I was wound up so tightly in the intense desire for there to be some mistake, for the tragedy not to be true, and then I was shattered by the final, inescapable knowledge.

So how is the commandment, "Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me" related to this story? I think it is fundamental to ask what the films, all together, are intended to be – parables, warnings, . . . ? Are we to understand the tragic conclusion of this particular film as some kind of punishment? I very much do not want to understand the films this way. I’d much rather that they are more like meditations – meditations on the commandments' meanings, meditations on how the commandments are related to human thought and action – I very much do not want Kieslowski to have made films that are lessons. And it’s hard to imagine that a filmmaker like him would be doing that, isn’t it? In spite of the fact that Poland has been a Catholic country? As I noted in my previous blog post, Kieslowski did write about his process of preparing for making the films,

“We read everything it was possible to read in libraries; a mass of interpretations of the Commandments, discussions and commentaries on the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. But we decided fairly quickly to dispense with all this. Priest draw upon it every day and we weren’t here to preach. We didn’t want to adopt the tone of those who praise or condemn, handing out a reward here for the doing of Good and a punishment there for the doing of Evil. Rather, we wished to say: ‘We know no more than you. But maybe it is worth investigating the unknown, if only because the very feeling of not knowing is a painful one.”

And that’s quite wonderful, isn’t it? He calls
The Decalogue an “investigation,” and I get the sense with his “we know no more than you” that he doesn’t presume to offer absolute answers and/or parallels. I do think that the Catholic church looms quite large in the film – there is a huge cross in the background as the boy walks across a snowy field, there is a church the father passes after checking the pond's ice, there is the faith of the aunt, there is a closing scene with the father in the church, and even, as I mentioned earlier, there is the series of crosses in the architecture of the residential building. Still, I’m wondering if we have to take those crosses, the indications of Catholicism as absolutely and exclusively tied to the commandments as they are "Catholic." From this first film, I get the sense that “God” may not necessarily mean “God” in the sense that he is described as such by the Catholic faith. The father trusts to what he can see, describe, prove, explain, predict in the material world – and I think anything that is mysterious or unexplainable or unpredictable, anything that is outside the realm of the human understanding and control could, perhaps, fall under the idea of God. Not that I want to remove the commandments too far from their Christian source, but “having no other gods before me” could in this film, I think, mean more than being a Catholic - it could extend to the more broadly metaphysical world.

There is a scene at the end, in which the father goes into a church and smashes the altar, and we see the Virgin Mary statue crying. It's curious scene - a scene that may or may not be an answer to the father's tragedy. I don’t think I want to read the Virgin's tears as a miracle, per se, and I’m not sure the film necessarily pushes me into that conclusion. The explanation can be a perfectly natural one. But I’d like to interpret the tears as an indication that while things may be explained, explained away, the occurrences themselves are not necessarily within the human capacity to predict, and the events may possibly have explanations or deeper meanings that the father may be unwilling to admit. Even if the tears could be explained, does that prove that there is nothing in life that is mysterious, that there is no God?

There is an incident earlier in the film - an wonderful scene - full of unease - in which an ink bottle simply, breaks. It is not dropped or bumped. It just begins to leak. The ink incident gives us more to say about human inability to comprehend and control life events, I think. The bottle may have been faulty, perhaps there had been temperature changes in the house that weakened the bottle – any explanation could be reasonable – but for the father, the broken ink bottle carries with it a dread, an indication that he is not omniscient. His computer program did not predict this broken bottle, and so it becomes linked to a symbol of something beyond him, like the tears on the Virgin.

I think the film is saying that the father cannot reject this notion of the mysterious, the notion of his human smallness, merely because (some) life events can be explained scientifically. When the boy asks his father about the death of the dog, the father gives a perfectly rational physical answer to "what is death?" His answer - the heart stops, life ends – is a scientific answer that works. But the film exposes how very little that answer satisfies that something deeper within us that cannot be quantified or explained. That answer does not answer the boy's hurt about why the dog died or what the death means. That answer does not answer the father's ultimate tragedy.

I would like, finally, to reflect a bit on the mysterious man in the film - the man who sits by the pond, who never speaks, who seems to see us, the viewers. Who is he? What is he doing in this film? I read some tidbit somewhere previously that there is an unexplained observer in
all the films of The Decalogue, and I guess now that he is that observer. I thought I also read that Kieslowski was never willing to explain him, and so I’m very curious as to what I will make of him as I continue to watch. I wondered, as I watched, if he represents a god-like observer, but again, I wondered if that was too much, even if he does appear in each film. Like the ink bottle and the tears on the Virgin, his presence could have a perfectly ordinary explanation, but his presence is certainly more than that. The way he looks directly into the camera at the beginning of the film, breaking the fourth wall, is so unsettling – it sent chills down my spine – I had the irrational, sudden thought, “What does he make of me?” And then when he looked away from the camera, I felt almost ashamed for some reason. I felt it was almost as if he was saying to me, “you’re about to tread in places that are private – are you really ready to go this way?”

I wonder if his presence speaks to the, perhaps, human sense that we are being watched, observed – don’t the commandments kind of speak to this somehow? Where would guilt be if we weren’t being watched? Is there a Person behind the commandments? What does he think of us? Is he going to step in, or not? I wondered about the man when the tragedy happened – he’d been sitting there by the pond the whole film, as far as we knew – but he was gone when the father looked in that spot later. Was he there when the ice broke? If he was, why didn’t he do anything? If he wasn’t, why did he leave when he’d been sitting there the whole time? This is all to say, I’m just not sure about him – I wonder if he could possibly represent the human feeling about God, viz. "Who are you? Are you watching me? Why weren’t you there – if you are there – when this thing happened? Why don’t you speak?" Do these questions make sense in the film's world? I'm not sure. I suppose I will continue to ponder this man as I continue to watch. In the meantime, I’m both drawn to him and frightened by him.

And I am eager to continue on the Part II.