Examine cave paintings that are thousands of years old in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a strange and fascinating documentary from Werner Herzog.
The Chauvet Cave in France was discovered in the 1990s by hikers who followed a draft of air deep into an ancient cave, the main entrance to which had been sealed off by a cave-in tens of thousands of years earlier. As a result, large chambers once used by prehistoric humans had been protected, changed very little except for the mineral deposits that created stalagmites, stalactites and other super cool formations that make you wish you remembered more about geology. Among the rocks, the explorers found cave paintings, many of them of animals long extinct, that may be some 30,000 years old.
Herzog, who narrates the film and frequently appears in it, walks us through the caves — a rare thing as they are locked up and seen mainly by scientists — and shows us red and black drawings, often sketch-like line drawings, of horses, reindeer, bears, bison-ish animals, lions, mammoths, rhinos and other animals. The drawings are shocking for how not-primitive they often seem. Some of the creatures seem to have been drawn to appear in motion and the pits and waves of the cave wall seem to have been purposefully used to alter the image’s appearance. (You can see some of the images at www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet.)
This movie might be the closest you can get to replicating the experience of standing in front of something and looking at it. We see the images, we see the light play on them (Herzog on several occasions tries to — with the limited equipment he’s allowed to bring in the cave — recreate the effect of the torch light the painters may have used.) Herzog will cut to the outside world to talk to experts or scientists working on the finds. We see a computerized three-dimensional map of the cave. Then we go back to the images, then to something else, then back to the images. We see the images from one side and later from as different an angle as can be managed. We get some sense of how the images work together and hear theories that some images might have been added thousands of years after others. The contemplative feel of the movie really lets you take the pictures in. Days after seeing the movie, I remember the things I’m supposed to remember — chiefly, the beauty and the otherworldly quality of the art.
And in this otherworldly world, the strange quirks of Herzog’s filmmaking work great. His narration has always seemed a little overly earnest to me but “earnest” seems the right fit on this occasion. Even a strange capper about nearby nuclear-power-heated steam rooms and the albino crocodiles grown there seem like part of a meandering rumination, not just a weird side trip. Even the only so-so 3-D effects work here; it helps to capture something of the texture and depth of the space, even if the visuals aren’t always Avartarian in quality.
“A movie that shows cave paintings — in 3-D” is not the formula for rip-roaring big adventure, but this movie is as good as or better than at least 90 percent of your current in-theaters options. It leaves you contemplating art, humanity and the sweep of histroy. B+
Not rated. Directed by Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an hour and 30 minutes long and distributed by IFC Films