In 1994, what is believed to be the oldest known prehistoric cave drawings were discovered in a mountain range in southern France. Hundreds of paintings of animals were catalogued from Chauvet Cave including several extinct species and others that have never been seen in prehistoric art before. Although the age of the paintings is in dispute among scientists, the drawings are believed to be 30,000 years old.
Due to the sensitive nature of the art, the cave is not open to the general public and great care has been insured to preserve the drawings, including the installment of a large thick steel door blocking the entrance to the cave. German filmmaker Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man), received special permission from the French Minister of Culture to enter the cave and film the drawings under strict conditions. He and his crew were allowed only six days of shooting of four hours each. They were not allowed to touch the walls or floor of the cave, (the camera was placed at the end of a long mechanical arm), and they were confined to a two-foot built walkway traversing the paintings.
The culmination of that expedition is revealed in Herzog's new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 90 minute film shot with 3-D cameras that record much of the artwork. The 3-D technology is used to magnify the contour and delicacy of the art and successfully brings depth and life to the paintings. Shadows in the cave cast an eerie wavering effect on the pictures as if the play of shadow and light were of the artist's intent. Multiple images of wild horses aligned with one another gives the illusion of the horses running when a light is cast upon them.
As magnificent as it is to view the paintings in the ideal conditions of a dark movie house, Herzog's film is a bit menial in scope for the cinematic movie screen. It's singular photographic effect would be better served on television. Cable TV's The History Channel co-produced the production.
It's also a bit preachy. Serving as philosophical narrative, Herzog, his crew, and several archaeologists and scientists offer their reactions to the paintings, which sometimes disturb the sedate nature of the art. Ideally, one wishes to bask in the pictures with the advantage of Herzog's 3-D technology and ponder one's own historical, spiritual, and philosophical thoughts without a thunderous musical score and idle, maybe even pompous chatter.
It is what the camera does not show where the film leaves its deepest impression. Much of the ancient art and evidence of human activity is unreachable and could not be filmed, and one is struck with wonder as Herzog points to an area of the cave, not captured on camera, where a boy's footprint, possibly the most ancient footprint ever documented, had been found next to the paw print of a wolf. Herzog poses the question, were the boy and wolf walking together, or was the wolf chasing the boy? We will never know.
Herzog's film sheds light on the magnificent etchings of ancient man found in Chauvet Cave. It is the next best thing to being there. Very soon The History Channel will likely be bringing these deeply moving images to the comfort of your own home.
this review was first published by the author at blogcritics.org.