Besides being a film, Dunkirk is maybe first of all a historic event. If its aesthetic features are those of a movie, something in the masterly use of sounds, music and silence refers to a semi-documentary narration, where the spectator is thrown down in the condition of a not too privileged observer. For the duration of 1h and 46 minutes, you live under water.
You do not have any chance to take a breath, since the war timing does not allow any truce. No pause; no rest. The movie does not only tell one historic event divided into three time and geographic lines: the movie itself becomes a historic fact. The ticking of the clock, neurotically scanning the whole soundtrack, sums up the events. There is no room for myths or heroes, but just for the defeated and the survivors.
Year is 1940. Germany invaded Poland, Hitler’s military forces have already reached Belgium, Luxemburg and, at last, France. Driven by the wind on the desert street, a rain of hundreds of papers mockingly say: “We surround you” and there, in front of the English Channel, soldiers are kept in check. Between earth and sea. Near home, and yet so irredeemably far away. The enemy is mostly invisible. Just perceived.
Dunkirk never takes flight, which surely is a precise choice from the director. He dirts with the blood, the sand and the saltiness. He clings around the hollowed faces of the actors (mostly young boys) and the overwhelmed silence of the audience.
Nolan’s directorial power is first of all the ability of turning a visually open space into a claustrophobic scenario. The use of wide angles is choked by tight close-ups and the geometric composition of the mise-en-scene is struck down by the confusion that you can breathe below the ships’ desks and in the cockpits.
The almost choked acting offers very few of the classic cinema we learnt to know. No catch phrases to end a sequence. Any single thing is almost sectioned, sifted and given with no superstructures. We find ourselves in front of a historic event; besides, maybe, a movie.