Monday, February 9, 2009

Decalogue and Mahabharata-12

This film is a commentary on the unforeseen links between the intellectual positions and real life stances. It is generally believed that both amount to the same. In some cases, intellectual position seems to guide the action but the situation is not entirely like that. Kieslowski used to say that ‘Knowing’ is not his business rather ‘not knowing’ is. He seems to convey in this film that what an intellectual position posits may not be the totality of what the mind thinks. The relationship between a principle and the life-world of a mind is a very complex one. Rather, taking a principle is a liminal stance and living a principle is an organic stance. Zofia and Elzbieta, the two main characters of the eighth part of Decalogue series, are trapped in between the two. Zofia teaches ethics at a Polish university while Elzbieta is a scholar from New York who has translated Zofia’s works into English. She is on a sojourn back to Poland after forty years. The exact motive is not very clear though it keeps coming out slowly and slowly during the course of the film. She takes permission to attend Zofia’s classes for a better understanding of her works.

            There is an interesting thing about this film. Its plot is divided into two parts; the first one is quite like a part of textual narrative and the second one is quite dramatic and filmic in nature. The first part is full of many elaborations built around philosophical and ethical issues. Since it is the eighth film in the series of ten, Kieslowski is consciously taking some liberties to familiarize the audience about the broad plan of his project. The story of Decalogue Two i.e. Dorota, her child, her dying husband and her lover, all come together in an ethical puzzle presented by one of the students of Zofia. He is deliberately taking the spectator into a past which may be a chronologically prior event but he is trying to hint that the films don’t belong to a chronological scheme rather they can be seen like a simultaneously occurring events. The origin of ethical problems can be always in the immediate environment around us. We are in a world criss-crossing simultaneously too many zones of time and space. Kieslowski is quite close to Saussure in his basic assumptions that life and language are a result of synchronic and not a diachronic phenomenon. On similar lines, he is introducing an old man, a stamp collector, who is building the context of the Decalogue Ten. Before the tenth part starts, he has already died after collecting rare stamps like that of Zeppelin Series in his repertoire. In the tenth part, he is only a memory though he is alive and a participating actor in the eighth one. He is Zofia’s friend. When Elzbieta asks Zofia about him, “Is he a stamp collector?” she answers back, “Yes, but much more than that.” We don’t know the details but it seems obvious that both of them share their loneliness because of a compelled life unattended and unappreciated by their children.

            The first part of the plot depends a lot on the long dialogues rather case studies of ethical issues. While trying to explain the ethical problem posed by her student, she upholds the centrality of saving a child’s life as the most fundamental ethical issue. Theophanes is there sitting in the form of the student. He is silently vouching for the sanctity of statements in that seminar hall. Elzbieta is perturbed over what Zofia says about the upholding the right of the child to be saved. She comes to the first desk, closer to Zofia and puts across another case study which “has one bad thing, it belongs to the past but it has one virtue that it is true.” The moment details of the case study start coming out, Zofia cannot remain unnerved because it is a story about her own past when she had herself denied the similar right to a six-year old Jewish girl in Warsaw during the Second World War in 1943. The story is that ‘the girl was in hiding from the Nazis but she was forced to move to another safe house, that of a Catholic family who agreed to shelter her if she is a Christian. The couple who is handling this transfer, suddenly, stop this transfer because they refuse to bear a false witness to God by wrongfully giving a Christian name to the girl. The child is driven out of their house when there is curfew time outside thus by meaning a near-sure death for her. The fact is that Elzbieta is that girl and one of the couple is Zofia herself. Her husband has died way back and now, she is the only to carry the curse of that unethical act of theirs. Once, the secret comes out, the plot resumes its dramatic quality. While Elzbeita is almost on the verge of ending her case story, she is accidentally stopped by the sudden entry of a drunkard student. It is quite reminiscent of the Decalogue Three of a similar character who symbolizes the spirit of the main character, Janusz. Zofia is the exact replica of the same character in this case. She is also shaken. She has come across the hole in the otherwise moral life of hers. She has not denied its existence but she has never been able to solve that too. Elzbieta is quite courageous on that front and through her; Zofia also tries to come to terms with that crisis.

            Joseph Kickasola calls this film “the most philosophically direct of the ten films and among the greatest”. I think that he is like any Western mind that is suffering from the guilt conscience of the Holocaust and a film on the same, and that too by somebody like Kieslowski, should be ranked among the greatest. But the moot point is not the greatness of the film rather its universality. In Mahabharata, when Bhishma was on the verge of Death and was lying on the bed of arrows, there happened an interesting thing. People after people came to pay him a final visit but after all were gone, there came in the near-darkness, Karna, to meet him. This was a very difficult meeting between the two. Once, when I asked the same question to Prof. Ramchandra Gandhi in his philosophy workshop, he came quite close to an accurate explanation of the same. He said that one hates the other precisely for the vice, which the one has not been able to manage oneself. Karna and Bhishma share a common trait that both have reduced them into stagnant characters; Bhishma by subjecting the power of his fertility permanently to the cause of his father’s love for a girl and as a result, developed a kind of sustained impotence. Karna is so obsessed with the question of identity that he reduces himself into a permanently trapped warrior fighting for the Kauravas. Both have done a similar unethical act; both have reduced the essential flow-like nature of theirs into a closed one. They have denied the descent of grace through the denial of flexibility. That is also the source of mutual hatred between the two. That is also the reason why Karna refuses to fight till Bhishma is alive and leading the army of the Kaurvas. But the certain death of the one removes the cause of this hatred and non-dialogue. Karna feels sorry for all the insulting things he had done to Bhishma and he answers back in equally poignant tone. They know that death is the only certainty now left in their lives; both of them are trying to cleanse their souls.

            On not a very dissimilar personal need, Zofia and Elzbieta are trying to solve their crisis. Elzbieta is trying to come out of the deep anguish with Zofia over her desertion while Zofia has been trying her all life to solve that crisis by teaching ethics through her lectures and books. Both the lives are like the crooked picture hanging in Zofia’s drawing room. Both of them take their turns at setting it right but the picture again bends. After the class ends, both of them meet in the corridor and Zofia confirms the veracity of the case study. Finally, the victim and the perpetrator of the crime, both are face to face. Zofia offers her a lift but she refuses as her hotel is just at the walking distance. Zofia tries again and invites her for an evening supper. This time she doesn't refuse and accompanies. Zofia, before taking her to apartment, stops the car at Noakowski Street just before the house where the tragic incident had happened. Zofia had left that place years back. It's a kind of face-off with their past. It's dark desolate building with a shrine, full of shattered homes and broken hopes. In a symbolic manner, it is a past that has lost its meaning; it is a past that is the best to be left as it is; it's a past worth forgetting. Elzbieta, during the visit to this house, plays trick upon Zofia. She wants to be looked for because she has always missed the deserving attention she needed. She wants to test Zofia’s sincerity. She hides in the darkness and Zofia thinks that she has lost her again. She goes to all corners of the house but cannot find her. She seems to miss the chance of redemption but when she comes back, she finds Elzbieta sitting in the car.

            At her apartment, both of them share the supper, their lives, their pains and a human bond. Zofia tells her why she had refused to bear the false witness. Actually, she was a member of the underground moment and the new family destined to be the girl’s protector, was a Gestapo collaborator. This threatened the entire command of underground moment which meant losing the bigger goal of freedom. Elzbieta is not so happy with the answer but understands the complexity of the situation. Zofia confesses before her that it was a decision which always haunted her because it was not a sign of goodness. She could do nothing after the incident. She could only locate the centrality of a child's right to be saved as the ultimate determinant of ethical life. But she could not do in real life; she tried to compensate it with in her intellectual life.

            After the supper, she requests her to stay. This request is a cry out of loneliness because the Zofia is living alone there for years. Her only son is living very far because he doesn't want to stay with her. Elzbieta realises that Zofia has already suffered for nearly an involuntary crime. She reconciles with her past and prays in Zofia's son’s room. In the morning, Zofia goes for her morning walk and comes across a contortionist who is practising his art in full public view. Zofia tries to imitate him but fails. In this comical intervention, the contortionist says that it's all a matter of practice and time before one can do it. In a way, it's an indication that contortions of human mind are a product of human beings too. They can correct them with the help of both time and effort. At home, Zofia and Elzbieta, both of them bring flowers for each other thus indicating the return of internal peace. Finally, Elzbieta expresses a desire to meet her would-be protector. Zofia takes her to that man who's a tailor. He has grown quite old and works in a very old shop too. Elzbieta introduces her and wants to discuss something about the war but he straightaway refuses to talk anything about the war and what happened after it. It’s a period of humiliation which he wants to forget permanently rather he wants to dress up her in new clothes. Again and again, he ignores her questions and shows her the possible designs of a new costume. Kieslowski seems to indicate that this is a time for the new dress up (internally) for Elzbieta. She returns redeemed.


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