Saturday, January 28, 2017

Film Notes: Dekalog 4

All ten of Krzysztof Kieślowski's short films in the Dekalog series have certain things in common; they are brooding, bleak, atmospheric dramatic shorts, set in the same monolithic Soviet-era block of flats, and all are inspired to some degree by The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. To undertake such a task when Poland was torn between the Catholic and Soviet identifies on offer was a bold enough prospectus, but Kieslowski once remarked that these were plays about right and wrong, written in an era when the very authority to define such concepts was up for grabs. This is compelling stuff, and in the hands of filmmaker as thoughtful and subtle as Kieslowski, surely going to have a lot to offer.

In practice the films are not all of the same quality. The ones which work least well are those where viewers and critics are left debating about which of the Commandments the film is said to relate to. Kieslowski didn't name the films, merely numbered them, and is a director who likes to leave things for his audiences to work out for themselves.
There is no doubt at all about which commandment Dekalog 4 draws on for its inspiration however, "honour thy father and mother" is clearly in view here. [spoiler alert]. The nature, importance, and uniqueness of the parent-child relationship is explored; and its limits probed, in this touching piece of drama. The film opens in the (by now familiar looking) 'dekalog' flats. A man and woman (Anka and Michal) share this flat, and we first encounter them they are acting playfully and affectionately, and despite their differing ages the starting assumption is that the beautiful 20-something is the wife/partner of the older man. Then, it becomes apparent that they are not partners in that sense at all; their separate rooms, and the appearance of the woman's boyfriend reveal that, and when she waves Michal off on a trip she says, "Goodbye Dad". 

As the complex narrative unwinds, we discover that the girl's mother died soon after delivering her, leaving Michal to bring the girl up alone. He has never remarried, or formed any long term attachments, despite some brief liaisons. At the time the film is set Anka has grown up, is a drama student for whom sex (with a succession of boyfriends) is part and parcel of her life; despite her father's disapproval. This much is straightforward; however the neat lines dividing the parenting relationship from all other are shattered when Anka finds a letter which reveals that Michal is not her biological father. A conflict ensues, in which Anka angrily accuses of Michal of lying to her for years. More disturbingly however, once the restraints of biological incest are removed; and it becomes clear that an unspoken sexual tension has
been building between them for years - their whole relationship could be metamorphosed from from that of parent/child to that of lovers. Here we have the heart of the question Kieslowski asks his audience: is parenting simply a matter defined by DNA, or is the social role of nurturing, disciplining, and raising equally definitive? The answer supplied by Anka and Michal, is that despite the physical attraction, the parenting relationship is more that the sum of its genes, and that the parenting relationship is to be honoured, preserved and protected. The film ends as they burn the letter which revealed their biological secret, and Anka again calls Michal 'Dad'.

Anka is well played by Adrianna Biedrzyńska, who very patiently allows the audience to explore the complexity of the character, as the reasons for her angst, tension and promiscuity is progressively
revealed. Janusz Gajos is excellent as Michal too, as he resists the obvious temptation to overplay it, and scene steal. Instead he allows the complex character of Michal to be tormented and complex, but in a quiet, stoical manner - so much of a more believable portrayal, whose impact is all the greater for its subtlety.

Dekalog 4 is a surprising, and slightly disturbing film. But one which asks an important question and probes towards a helpful answer.

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