Thou shalt not steal

I am stealing Suburban_elk’s film-rating system. It’s a zero-to-two scale with Zero = don’t bother, One = worth seeing once, Two = more rewarding after multiple viewings.

Given that I watched all ten installments of the Decalogue (1988) many times over in my youth and then after a nearly twenty-year break watched Decalogue 7, “Thou Shalt Not Steal” approximately ten times over the past few weeks, it’s a Two on Elk’s scale. After all that time and so many times having seen that particular episode, I still find new ways in which the theme of Theft figures in the story, in addition to the nominal act of theft that was done to and then by the protagonist. I did just this morning, in fact, think of yet another treatment of that theme.

Another thing that’s worth observing is one’s own response to a film at two very distant points in his life. One of those is his attitude toward child-characters that are central to a film’s conflict. A childless young man, as I was when I first watched Decalogue 7, will likely sympathize with the young-adult protagonist. He might grudgingly grant a much-older antagonist his due, but his heart’s not in it. As to the child-character in the world of adult leads, he or she is an abstraction in the drama, sometimes just buzzkill. Young childless viewers don’t think much of children (or fatherhood) one way or another.

Twenty years later, one sees the same film but this time with an instinct, an imperative, that overrides all others. Namely, that a child, above all considerations, must be protected. With that new perspective after two decades, seeing Decalogue 7 was an even more profound experience.

Below, I am linking to Dekalog 7, which is on YouTube in three parts. Unfortunately, not with English subtitles. It’s subtitled in Spanish. I’m also providing a detailed plot summary to make it easier for you to follow the story, should you want to see this one-hour film and you don’t speak Spanish. I recommend that you see it. The cinematography and acting are worth it. To summarize the film, I used Infogalactic’s plot summary as my starting point to save effort. The translations of dialogue are mine.

I don’t plan on doing this with any of the other episodes of the Decalogue.

This is one of only two episodes in the series in which the recurring, mysterious “angel” character does not appear. But there are moments in this one that have an otherworldly air, like something out of Grimms’ tales of forests and peril.

Prior to the events of the film: Ewa is the mother of 22-year-old Majka. She was unable to have children after Majka, though she wanted to have more. She worked as principal at Majka’s high school, where she hired a young literature professor, Wojtek. As then-16-year-old student, Majka had a romance with her teacher Wojtek that resulted in a pregnancy. To avoid a scandal and because of Majka’s young age, it was arranged to have their illegitimate daughter Ania raised as Ewa’s daughter and Majka’s sister. Wojtek was possibly willing to start a family with Majka and their baby but ultimately, then-teenager Majka agreed to her mother’s arrangement and Wojtek avoided criminal charges for seducing a minor by walking away.

Decalogue 7:

Part 1 of 3. [An Argentine public television host introduces the episode for about the first four minutes, then it begins.]

Twenty-two-year-old Majka, who still lives with her parents in Warsaw, is expelled from the university during her last term and wants to flee to Canada with Ania. She needs her mother’s signature, however, to obtain Ania’s passport. Six-year-old Ania has recurrent nightmares and can only be consoled by Majka’s mother, Ewa. Majka’s father, Stefan, spends his time fixing a pipe organ in their apartment. Ewa is just as cruel to Majka as she is affectionate to Ania.

Ewa takes Ania downtown to watch a theater performance for children, and then the kids in the audience are invited onstage. Majka manages to get backstage and lures Ania away with her. Ewa is shattered by Ania’s disappearance. Ania, meanwhile, believes that all of this is just a game with her “sister.” In the scene with the merry-go-round, Majka tells her that she is not her sister, but her mother. Ania seems to understand and then asks who her father is.¬†That scene begins at 15:00.

ANIA: [Riding on the carousel, giggling] You kidnapped me?

MAJKA: [Smiling] What?

ANIA: You kidnapped me. Like in that fairy-tale “A Kidnapping in Tiutiurlistan.”

MAJKA: [Stops the carousel, becomes serious] You’re a big girl now, aren’t you?

ANIA: Mom tells me that I am.

MAJKA: Exactly. [Pauses] Look at me. Mom… mom is not your mom.

ANIA: I don’t have a mom?

MAJKA: You do. Your real mom… I am really your mom.

Part 2 of 3. Majka and Ania go to Wojtek’s house in the country not far outside of Warsaw. He now earns a living by making Teddy bears. They meet for the first time in six years, and Wojtek is surprised and somewhat uncomfortable to see his daughter. While Ania sleeps, Majka and Wojtek discuss their past. In her sleep, Ania grabs Wojtek’s finger and he begins to warm to her. Majka goes out to call her parents from a phone booth.

Part 3 of 3. Majka calls her parents in Warsaw and tells them her conditions regarding Ania, namely that she be legally recognized as the little girl’s mother and that they be left alone. Majka’s dialogue with her mother Ewa that begins at 0:41 is important:

EWA: Hello?

MAJKA: She’s with me.

EWA: [sigh of relief] My God, she’s with you…

MAJKA: Did you report this to the police?

EWA: Yes, we did. But never mind that. Where are you?

MAJKA: Call it off. Tell the police that you found her. Do that first.

EWA: Yes of course, we’ll do that. Where are you? We’re picking you both up. [Yells at Stefan to hurry up with her cigarette.]

MAJKA: Somewhere. I’m not telling you. You have to change everything.

EWA: Like what? [Stefan lights her cigarette] What am I supposed to change? I don’t understand.

MAJKA: Everything. Ania must be mine.

EWA: [Sits down] That’s impossible.

MAJKA: She must be.

EWA: Nobody knows about this. [That Majka is Ania’s real mom]

MAJKA: They’ll find out. I’ll prove it.

EWA: You’ll prove nothing. Ania is mine. She’s my child in all the records, only Jadwiga knows that you gave birth to her but she’ll never tell. [Long pause] Where are you?

MAJKA: Father knows.

EWA: Your father knows nothing, absolutely nothing.

MAJKA: And Wojtek knows.

EWA: You’re better-off not counting on Wojtek. When I retire, I’ll tell you a few things about him.

Now at 2:05 Majka accuses her mother of theft, the heart of Decalogue 7:

MAJKA: Listen carefully. You stole my child, it wasn’t supposed be like this. You stole my child, and my motherhood. Also love. You robbed me of yourself, of you both, everything. I’m giving you two hours to think about it and then I will tell you what you have to do. [Hangs up]

In the meantime, Ania has woken up and engages in conversation with Wojtek who is now very affectionate towards her. Majka comes back and in an increasingly tearful scene, asks Ania to address her as her mother, but the little girl can only call her “Majka.”¬†Later that night, Majka’s father calls, but Wojtek lies and tells him that he has not seen her in six years. Ewa begs Stefan to call up his former political acquaintances to help them find Ania.

Ania falls asleep again. Wojtek tells Majka to consider going back to her parents’ house, since the trauma of the entire ordeal will be too much for Ania. At 10:50 he tells her:

WOJTEK: If you are planning on going somewhere alone with her…

MAJKA: Where?

WOJTEK: Wherever. Somewhere far. She won’t endure it. Your shouting, your impatience, your hysteria. She is delicate. […] You’ll destroy the child. […] You should go back. She must have a normal home. Her own bed, her own toys, her own milk. Do you understand?

Wojtek also reluctantly tells her that she and Ania can either stay with him, or have his house and he’ll move out. Majka pretends to agree and Wojtek promises to get a friend, who has a van, to take them back.

When Wojtek returns with his friend, Majka and Ania are gone. (As they were leaving, Majka told Ania that Wojtek doesn’t want them there.) Majka calls Ewa from the phone booth again and demands that she agree to all her previous conditions and sign the necessary documents to get Ania’s passport and visa for Canada. Ewa tries to negotiate but Majka is relentless — either Ewa agrees to her demands or else she will never see Ania again. After a moment’s silence Majka hangs up, just as Ewa is about to agree to her terms. The phone rings again at Ewa and Stefan’s. It is Wojtek; he confesses to his earlier lie and offers his help in locating Majka.

Shortly after the 18:00 minute mark: in predawn hour, Majka and Ania stand under a bridge to hide from Wojtek’s oncoming van. I will not spoil the final scene. It stays with you, in the characters’ expressions, camerawork and the music.