The seventh graders I teach Confirmation classes to every Saturday morning finished their test on the Ten Commandments last week (though a few will be doing retakes!). As I graded lists of the Ten Commandments, two things came to mind. The first was a question an agnostic friend posed to me a few years ago: how useful are the Ten Commandments, really? Can morality be boiled down to ten rules?
The second was a film—or more precisely, a series of films—I watched at the end of last semester, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (1989). If you haven’t seen The Decalogue, add it to the list—along with the Brideshead Revisited miniseries—of really long films you really must see.
The Decalogue is a series of ten short films, each of which relates thematically in some way to one of the Ten Commandments. Actually, most of the films relate to more than one of the Commandments, and their way of relating is never quite the same in each case. In some—for example, murder—the crime at the center is obvious, the clear axis of the plot. For others—like blasphemy—when exactly (and how many times and in what way) the Commandment is violated is open to interpretation. In Decalogue VII we are left wondering who is stealing from whom.
Each of the films is only about an hour long, but the characters in every story are powerfully and memorably portrayed. The main characters in each film are different, but some characters reappear in later films with bit parts. All of the films involve the residents of a rather nondescript Warsaw apartment complex. The architecture is gray—the flower of late-Communist aesthetics—but the visual details Kieslowski shows us are stark and haunting: a partially-finished church, a car abandoned in the middle of a snowy square, the shattered glass of a broken door. There are bits of humor and poignant losses; the films are, in short, remarkably human.
The Decalogue is anything but a series of morality plays, and Kieslowski himself was a man of ambiguous religious beliefs. Each of the films asks more questions than it answers, and each could be analyzed for hours. But The Decalogue does, I think, begin to answer my agnostic friend’s question.
In his introduction to the series, Roger Ebert said that The Decalogue portrays the Commandments not so much as a rulebook but as an art, and I think he’s on to something. In life we don’t often face one of the Commandment in isolation, and we never face them in an abstract way outside of our living relationship with God and with each other. To give just one example, the first Commandment—to honor God above all else—undergirds all the other nine, and it is impossible to honor God apart from the concrete moral norms these latter nine set out.
And while many of the Commandments are framed as prohibitions—thou shall not—taken as a whole they are an invitation into a way of life with God at its center and harmony among men. The Commandments are the canvas and the easel for the art of being human.
There are a lot of colors on that canvas. Black and white to be sure—for in life we do encounter evil, as well as God’s pure goodness. But this goodness illuminates a whole spectrum of colors, individual and beautiful, blending into one another. We live among these colors, among this art. I think I told my agnostic friend that each of the Ten Commandments covers rather a lot of territory when understood correctly. I should have recommended The Decalogue as a demonstration of just what a beautiful mess striving to follow those ten rules can be.