Resurrecting Kieslowski

I’ve spent the past few weeks watching “The Decalogue”, Krystzof Kieslowski’s ten episode late 80’s Polish television series, at the Brattle. I’ve seen all the installments except for the last two, which I need to rent. Each episode is structured around one of the Ten Commandments and consequences brought about when it is broken. It is all set in a massive, monolithic Warsaw apartment complex, but each episode stands on its own, and the narrative strands do not intertwine as they do in Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy.

I guess what’s most remarkable about “The Decalogue”, apart from the performances and the sheer ingenuity of some of the situations, is that Kieslowski never sermonizes. Each commandment brings about a set of complex, ethical and social issues that aren’t often answered easily. For instance, in “Thou Shall Not Kill”, a young man brutally and senselessly murders a taxi driver. He is then sentenced to death by hanging, and his “murder” is just as horrifying. But instead of supporting the old Christian “eye for an eye” ethic, Kieslowski draws parallels between the two acts of killing to an extent that we are left to question how we can possibly justify murder in some cases but not in others.

Before he died in 1996, Kieslowski was working on scripts for a three-part trilogy of films to be called “Heaven”, “Hell” and “Purgatory”. Only the first was completed, and now German director Tom Tywker has filmed it. Tywker is best known for “Run Lola Run”, a hyperkinetic whoosh of a movie, which combined MTV editing and pop frenzy with themes of chance, destiny, and fate. His follow-up, “The Princess and the Warrior”, further explored the same themes of “Lola”, but stretched them out at a much more subdued, muted, and occasionally turgid pace. It failed to find much of an audience, and although it was a little overlong, it showed Tywker striving for more substance to match his style.

“Heaven”, fortunately, is a more successful, extensive fusion of style and substance for Tywker, and it does Kieslowski’s script proud. Unfortunately, it too only captured a fraction of “Lola’s” audience; Miramax’s reluctance to widely distribute this film could have something to do with the fact that its main character is, uh, a bomber (we should be lucky this played theaters at all). The bomber is Phillipa (Cate Blanchett), a British teacher living in Naples. In the film’s mesmering first ten minutes, she places a bomb in the high-rise office of a man whom she feels is responsible for her husband’s death. Tragically, the bomb ends up in the hands of four innocent people, whom are killed instead. This all unravels with a calm, methodical, eerie tension worthy of Hitchcock and Polanski. Arrested and imprisoned, Phillipa will only testify in English, which requires the translating skills of Fillipo (Blanchett’s “The Gift” co-star Giovanni Ribisi), a young police officer.

Like “25th Hour”, “Heaven” is film about taking responsibility for one’s actions. When she finds out the bomb’s victims were not whom she intended, Phillipa is devastated and wants to atone for her sins. But Fillipo instantly falls in love with her and helps her plot her escape, making himself a fugitive. The motive behind Fillipo and Phillipa’s love is vague, even when a physical transformation visually strengthens the bond between the two. But, as its title suggests, “Heaven” is less concerned about the explicable and more about that which lies beyond and is unanswerable.

Before the bombing sequence, the film opens with a point of view shot of two pilots (not shown, only heard) flying a helicopter over a computerized landscape. It ends with one asking the other how high they can go. That question is a key to what “Heaven” is all about. After all, Kieslowski was just as concerned with faith (no matter how skeptically) as he was with fate. The scene subtly, beautifully anticipates “Heaven’s” open-ended, charmingly unexpected conclusion.