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'Dunkirk,' Moses and the Truth of Catholic Storytelling

October 25, 2021 | By

The Catholic Church helped create Western civilization, but it's not resting on its laurels. The latest in a series of books shows how the Church's teachings are truly eternal, and as relevant today as ever -- even at the movies.

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., recently contributed a chapter to Reclaiming the Piazza III: Communicating Catholic Culture, published by Gracewing, and edited by lecturer Leonardo Franchi of the University of Glasgow, journalist and broadcaster Ronnie Convery, and Jack Valero, press officer for Opus Dei in Britain.


Reclaiming the Piazza III: Communicating Catholic Culture is a timely contribution, showing how the Catholic theological tradition in its perennial wisdom engages with, and helps redress, the challenges of our times. In its content and collaborative approach, this book models the very kind of "bridge building" it identifies as a fundamental characteristic of the New Evangelization. It will also serve as a rich resource for anyone, of all faiths or none, interested in learning more about the vital roles which faith, reason, and a spirit of charity play in resourcing our culture today.

Father Vince, as befits a graduate of USC School of Cinematic Arts, wrote a chapter on film. In this excerpt (British spelling and all), he looks at the Catholic themes that, intentionally or not, can be found in the 2017 film Dunkirk.

Take it away, Father Vince ...

Excerpt from Fr. Vince Kuna’s: “A Catholic Understanding of Storytelling in Film”, a chapter contribution to the anthology, Reclaiming the Piazza III: Communicating Catholic Culture. Posted here with the permission of Gracewing (publisher).

Truth-telling: Catholic themes follow the veracity of the content

In addition to form, we can proffer an answer to the question that began this chapter: ‘What makes for ‘Catholic’ screenwriting?’ Catholic themes follow a similar trajectory to the one just examined. A writer need not be Catholic, nor the story they are telling contain Catholic characters or setting. The writer only needs to tell the truth of the subject matter they have taken up. It goes back to the old adage that ‘something isn’t true because it’s Catholic, it’s Catholic because it’s true.’

Or perhaps, it goes back even earlier, to the stories Jesus told. Particularly in the form of parables, the Son of God did not mention the word ‘God’ in some of them. This doesn’t mean the story would be devoid of theological themes. My favorite re-watchable film of recent years is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Allied Forces evacuating Europe’s mainland during WWII is hardly an overtly religious tale. None of the main characters is necessarily depicted with faith. The film is short on logistics, telling the event from the eyes of the participants. If infantrymen, they hold the beach. If part of the civilian rescue crew, they cross the English Channel and evacuate the infantry. If fighter pilots, they engage and shoot down German dive-bombers.

The choice for evacuation, whether the British armed forces knew it at the time, denoted the most ‘godly’ military manoeuvre since Moses outfoxed the Egyptians. Allied forces were trapped between German lines and the sea, presenting the British commanders with two options: surrender or launch a more than likely failed counterattack. German forces, fearing said counterattack, relented from attacking, instead fortifying the newly acquired positions. The Allies use this fearful delay against their enemy, choosing an overlooked ‘third way’, recruiting civilians and commandeering civilian boats to evacuate troops. The Miracle of Dunkirk was just that, a vast number of Allied troops outmanoeuvering their foes to live and fight another day. While the story was on the surface secular, the faith themes nevertheless abound.

I would say, too, that the format Nolan chose to deliver the story was, whether he knew it at the time or not, supremely Catholic. Depending on the speed of the vehicle (or lack of one) in each part of the story, he makes mention of the time elapsed. Pop singer Harry Styles is unrecognisable as an infantryman stranded on the beach for a week. Recent Oscar-winner Mark Rylance’s civilian boat attempts the water evacuation in one day. Finally, Tom Hardy, as a lone fighter pilot, defends his countrymen from strafing German pilots over the course of an hour. This playing with time I thought to be not so subtly liturgical. Dunkirk is a miracle of deliverance. The great liturgical celebrations of the Mother Church mess with time: we celebrate a Christmas Eve Mass in an hour. It’s followed by an entire Christmas Day. Then the Christmas octave. A deliverance from spiritual slavery, it seems, too, requires different observances of time.

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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