What with its various locations, parallel narrative structure and recurring visual motif involving mirrors and reflections, this is easily one of the more cinematic installments in The Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 10-part series of short films based on the Ten Commandments. It’s also, some might argue, the most didactic.
For its first half, Decalogue V jumps back and forth among three characters: a taxi driver on his daily routine (Jan Tesarz); a law student (Krzysztof Globisz) about to complete his degree; and an antisocial youth (Miroslaw Baka) who wanders around town committing mischief and, eventually, worse. (Skip to the last paragraph if you don’t want to know what that involves.)
As is the case throughout the series, Decalogue V makes space for the full humanity of its characters. The taxi driver is conscientious about keeping his car clean and shares his sandwich with a stray dog, but he’s also casually mean, honking his horn in order to startle unsuspecting pedestrians. Jacek, the youth, becomes increasingly hostile, even shoving a man into a urinal without any real provocation, yet he also warmly smiles at a pair of little girls peering into the window of a cake shop and teasingly flings some frosting at them (another reflection moment).
Decalogue V makes space for the full humanity of its characters.
The result is that our feelings are ambiguous when Jacek hires the taxi driver and then, unexpectedly, tries to kill him, eventually succeeding. I say “eventually” because Kieslowski draws out the crime in agonizing detail, as Jacek’s first few attempts don’t succeed. (For all the bloodshed, the most curdling image is that of the driver’s foot squirming out of his shoe as he’s being choked.)
It is then that the lawyer, now a defense attorney, returns to the narrative to represent Jacek. He loses the case (“utterly”) and Jacek is sentenced to death. Kieslowski depicts this killing in an equally unflinching manner, from the details of the preparation (including a tray that is set beneath the noose to catch bodily fluids) to the act itself. Despite all the formalities, things devolve into frantic chaos when the time comes to put the rope around Jacek’s neck, as shame fills the room like a noxious gas and everyone wants to be done with the business as quickly as possible. By the time the movie concludes, it seems as if Kieslowski has refashioned the Fifth Commandment to read: Thou shalt not capitally punish.
I’d argue, though, that Decalogue V is only strident if you discount the film’s theological implications. In one sense, this is a condemnation of capital punishment. In another, it’s a commentary on the mercilessness of the Mosaic Law and the standard of perfection it demands. In both a micro and macro sense, then, Decalogue V isn’t a call for justice, but for grace.