Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an incredible, not-to-be-missed documentary on one of the most beautiful and exciting discoveries ever, the Chauvet cave of France, a time capsule of an art gallery containing over 400 cave paintings of animals, the oldest visual art known, created during Paleolithic times by early humans who shared their valley with Neanderthals.
As a movie fan, I love it, and I think you will, too. As a movie critic, I can say that it is now, and will be, this critic's best film of 2011, and indeed it's my pleasure to report that it's one of the best movies of all time. You need to see it. Your friends and neighbors need to see it. Take the kids, the grandkids or the grandparents. I sincerely ask you to do yourself a favor and find out where it's playing and go there. If it's not playing near you, please contact your nearest theaters capable of playing 3-D movies and demand it in your area. In an ideal world, it would play and play, so that anyone could see it anytime they wanted forever.
I can sympathize with those who might be skeptical that it could be as good as I'm saying. Documentaries are rarely huge box office, and the 3-D surcharge could also keep some away. One might think, "Wouldn't a 3-D documentary be boring and expensive?" Boring, no way. And the 3-D adds so much. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is certainly as good a 3-D movie as How to Train Your Dragon or Toy Story 3. I've looked up and marveled at images from the cave online since seeing the film, and I have to say, it's better in 3-D.
Scientists have determined that around 32,000 years ago, in a cave nestled in a hill near the natural stone arch known as Pont d'Arc, early humans began creating an incredible work of art. They worked on it for 5,000 years. Then, about 20,000 years ago, a cliff collapse closed the entrance to the cave, which remained sealed off from human view and knowledge until 1994, when Jean-Marie Chauvet, for whom the cave is named, and two other explorers, found and uncovered it, allowing it to once again enter human consciousness.
Nature and the animal kingdom have also collaborated with these early humans to create the vision of this priceless jewel box of a cave bear cave now available to be seen by all...in 3-D. The beautiful paintings themselves take advantage of the curvature of the cave walls, so that the 3-D presentation is not a curiosity, but a necessity for the audience to see Chauvet cave very much like its creators would have. Water, minerals and gases seeping through the cave for thousands of years have left a layer of peach-colored calcite over everything, preserving the paintings with a startling clarity, blanketing the cave floor, strewn with preserved animal bones, and creating cascades, curtains, stalactites and stalagmites throughout with their own eerie delicacy and perfection.
But the beauty and intrinsic value of the cave and its contents are not all that makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams a masterpiece of incalculable importance. In many ways, this movie is a culmination of filmmaking, a genuine meeting of subject, medium and execution which provides unanticipated reasons the development of filmmaking and 3-D technology took place. The playful, almost off-hand way Herzog has put together images of the cave and its surroundings with experts who can put it all in context make both a fascinating document and a high-level artistic statement beyond a simple trip to an ancient art gallery (which is exciting enough!).
Herzog himself, one of our greatest filmmakers, narrates the film with a sense of seriousness mixed with wonder and whimsy suited to the task. He also served as one of the small crew allowed to film inside the cave. A humorous and confounding postscript side trip provides somewhat random but ultimately illuminating juxtapositions, contradictions and questions, and more stark beauty.
Then there's the music. Herzog, in the beginning of the film, makes some seemingly hyperbolic claims for the cave and its implications for art history and culture, as well as geology, anthropology, religion, zoology, and more, which create an automatic urge to scoff and doubt, until we see the stunning cave itself and conclude that his statements are, first, true, and second, modest. The original music, by Ernst Reijseger, works in a similar way, starting out with some relatively over-the-top and familiar tricks for evoking feelings of discovery and grandeur, then piling these on top of each other as we begin to believe. As a result, while the score constantly calls attention to itself, it also points back at the walls of the cave, so that while it is distracting at times, it also unifies with, accompanies and complements the images in a powerfully satisfying way.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the best view possible of the amazing Chauvet cave. Very few people will ever get to go inside and see it in person. So go and see it, and get a good look. It's hard to feel I could do a film this great justice with this short review, but I've seen it twice, and chances are good that even while you may be finishing up reading this, I may again be descending Cave of Forgotten Dreams, torch high, eyes popping. It is a rare beauty, in fact, one of the rarest. Do not miss out.
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