Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Released:  2010

SUMMARY:  This film is a documentary about Chauvet Cave in southern France.  The cave was discovered in 1994 by a group of scientists; the cave had been hidden for thousands of years by a huge rock slab, which had blocked the original entrance (the slab fell during a rock slide).  This not only sealed the cave, it created a tomb-like atmosphere which enabled near-perfect preservation of the cave’s interior.  Inside the cave the scientists discovered large groups of cave paintings, which carbon dating later proved to be the oldest cave paintings on Earth.  The cave also contained fossilized animal bones, some of them from animals that have long been extinct, like the cave bear.  There is at least one set of human footprints in the cave, as well.  In 2010, Werner Herzog and a small crew were allowed unprecedented access to this cave, which is only open to the public for two weeks every year.  Even so, there were severe restrictions:  Herzog could only take three people with him, meaning that everybody had to do various technical jobs, and inevitably ended up in the shot; he and the crew had to wear special suits while inside the cave, and they were only allowed to be inside for a few hours each day, due to the high levels of radon and carbon dioxide.  Everybody that goes into the cave is confined to a narrow metal walkway, and is not allowed to leave the walkway or touch the walls.  Despite all of these hurdles, Herzog and his crew were able to get terrific footage of the cave’s interior, and even managed to use a camera on a stick to view part of a painting hidden from sight (from the walkway).  Herzog also interviewed a number of people involved with the cave’s preservation, including the former head of research of the cave and the current curator.

MY TAKE:  The first thing that amazed me about this movie is that the cave wasn’t discovered until 1994.  I guess I must have the perception that all major historical discoveries, like King Tut’s tomb and Pompeii, were made in the distant past, but 1994 is only about 20 years ago.  The upside of this is that people realized that steps had to be taken to preserve the cave, and access was immediately restricted — they didn’t have lots of tourists trouping through and damaging things.  This is probably also part of the reason that I’d never even heard of Chauvet Cave before watching this.  It’s kind of sad that everyday people are not allowed to experience the cave for themselves, but I also understand the reason for preserving it.  It just kind of seems like a shame that scientists are the only ones who get to see the paintings up close, at least until this film was released.  The cave itself is really cool to look at, both for the paintings and for the fossils, and even the stalactites/stalagmites and various calcifications on the floor.  There are a ton of cave bear bones lying around, which came across to me like a woolly mammoth — scientists tell you it existed, but you’ve never really seen a whole lot of proof.  Here, you see the actual bones, as well as paintings of them on the walls.  The paintings are fairly well-done, and several of them appear to show movement.  Obviously, the cave is huge from a historical and scientific standpoint, but honestly it starts to drag over the course of an hour-and-a-half film.  It only takes so long to show all of the paintings on the screen, and while they’re important, they’re not overly detailed or fascinating.  Basically, when you’re watching the film and not getting the tour in person, you can absorb things a lot faster, and this makes the film a little slow.

RATING:  Interesting but starts to drag.

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