Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Decalogue: Two

Second Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

The powerful second volume in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue concerns Dorota, a woman seemingly in her thirties who is seeking consultation with an elderly doctor who lives in the
housing complex in which the totality of the series is situated. The doctor is a senior physician at the local hospital and lives alone, having lost his family years before. Dorota’s husband is ill and resides in the doctor’s ward, and she is urgently trying to find out about his condition, specifically the chances of his living through the illness. This information is revealed quite slowly over the first act, featuring close-ups on the two characters as they go about their routines.

The doctor is gruff and seems detached from human caring. As Dorota implores him for knowledge on her husband’s condition in their apartment building, he replies that family consultations take place on Wednesday afternoons during a two-hour period. Yet this detachment is revealed in the way he tells an old and often repeated story to his housekeeper, his only friendly acquaintance within the film. He slowly tells her about his children, wife, and father, who all lived with him when he was a young doctor. The stories have a bit of charm, the sort of wistfulness that reminded me of my own grandfather with a gruff exterior. But during an air raid during World War II, the entire house is destroyed killing everyone inside; the doctor only lived for he had yet to return home from the hospital. This dispassionate storytelling serves to demonstrate how far he has insulated himself from the feelings that arise when one lets themselves form a familial attachment.

Dorota is so insistent on seeing the doctor that he finally relents, and then we learn the dynamics of her situation. She is pregnant, but not by her husband who is lying near death in a hospital, but instead by her lover. She claims to love both men, and we believe her because of the way she speaks about both of them and the way that the doctor says he has seen her and her husband together. Dorota wants to know whether her husband will recover, for if h
e does she must have an abortion, but if not she could keep the child and be with the lover. Up until now, she has been unable to conceive and feels that this is her only chance to be a mother.

Such a setup presents a delightfully complex problem for the doctor, as he knows that medical science cannot accurately predict whether her husband will live or die. Yet, he does try and offer some statistical information, claiming that there is perhaps a 15% chance of survival. As she tries to discuss the issue with him on multiple occasions, attempting to force a solid opinion on what she should do, he is slowly drawn back into the life of another person; he begins to care about her.

In a brilliant final sequence, Dorota, agonizing over her decision, resolves herself to terminate the pregnancy, knowing that even if her husband dies, such an act will prevent her and her lover from ever being able to be together. She informs the doctor of her decision to let him off the hook for the fate of the unborn child, yet he surprises her with an emphatic declaration that she not have the abortion because her husband is going to die. She wavers and asks him to swear, which he does, thus violating the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain. In a final twist, Dorota’s husband recovers and thanks the doctor for saving his life, telling him that they are going to have a child together. He then asks the doctor is he knows what it is like to have a child, which sadly he does.

While this episode was highly satisfying and for me more unsettling than the first volume, the commandment forbidding one to take the Lord’s name in vain has always been a nonstarter for me, though I am unable t
o explain why this is so. The doctor makes an oath that Dorota’s husband will die, yet as he is in no position from which to make such a certain determination, which he admits earlier in the film repeatedly, it is obvious that he making the sort of claim that only God would know, thus invoking God into an oath from which he has no real place. The irony of the story is that both the doctor and Dorota must live with the knowledge that the unborn baby is not that of the husband who will raise him, perhaps because the doctor’s implicit invocation of God into the oath may have indirectly led to the healing.

The idea that the Lord works in mysterious ways and that science cannot predict everything is a sobering one, yet as this was pretty much the message of the first volume in the series, such a quick repetition seems unnecessary and even a bit redundant. So while I found this film to be especially resonating, I don’t think its power will diminish in my mind for a long time, I am not sure that it works too well within the greater framework of the series. Further reflection on this question will be necessary as I continue through the films.

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