Despite a fancy tracking shot involving a skateboarder and even a Krzysztof Kieslowski car chase (!), Decalogue III is a fairly inert installment in the director’s 10-part series of short films based on the Ten Commandments. The moral inquiry remains fruitful fodder for reflection; the framework itself feels lacking.
Perhaps it’s because this is largely a chamber piece between two actors, one of whom kept me at a significant distance. Daniel Olbrychski plays Janus, a husband and father whom we first meet playing Santa Claus for his young children on Christmas Eve. He does his best, but can barely muster up a single, jolly “Ho,” let alone three. Afterward, removing his beard and staring into space as his wife (Joanna Szczepkowska) strokes his face, Janus enters a dour daze of sorts that lasts for the rest of the film. Sad Santa, indeed.
Hitting quite a few more emotional notes is Maria Pakulnis as Ewa, the likely reason behind Janus’ glum demeanor. Former lovers whose affair was discovered a few years ago, Ewa and Janus have kept apart until this holiday evening, when she reappears and asks him to help her look for her missing husband (although she may have other motivations).
The holiday setting lends a thematic and visual poignancy to the proceedings. On a night of family gathering, Janus once again flirts with betraying his own. When Ewa grabs the wheel of his car and swerves the vehicle into a glowing Christmas tree – one of a handful of suicidal gestures – the crashing bulbs cast them both in an eerie red glow. Whatever might be left of their earlier passion, it has now curdled with an element of loathing.
How do the Ten Commandments come into play? It’s not immediately clear. Are Ewa and Janus – or any such illicit couple – transgressors who deserve their misery? Or are they victims of a societal structure, one based on the Commandments, that prioritizes stability and tradition over individual desires? True to the tantalizing murkiness of the entire series, you could read Decalogue III either way.