Movie Review: “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

If you’re looking for a filmmaker to document, for all of humanity, “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of human culture,” the great Werner Herzog is your guy.

Especially if that discovery is deep in a remote cave. The legendary German director of “Fitzcarraldo,” “Rescue Dawn” and the documentaries “Grizzly Man,” and “Encounters at the End of the World” was the one movie director to have access, with 3D cameras, to the oldest known paintings ever discovered. And in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” now showing at the Regal Winter Park 20, these 32,000 year old cave drawings come to life in Herzog’s latest meditation on the poetic soul of man.

Lights flicker across the undulating, liquid-smooth walls of the “Chauvet Cave,” where the work of a handful of artists decorated what appears to have been a religious or rite of passage altar used for perhaps 5,000 years of Paleolithic history.

Match that, Stonehenge.

Herzog interviews the various experts (helpfully, most all of them speak English) who study and interpret the drawings and the cave those drawings are in. Most fascinating of all, Herzog gives his own whispered take on the art and the artists. Illuminated, in ancient times, by torchlight, the drawings of horses, bison, mammoths, rhinos, bears and lions often have multiple sets of legs, a blur “like frames in an animated film.”

As he sees the hand print of one particular Paleolithic man, whose crooked pinky finger gives him away, Herzog speculates on all those who painted, re-painted (even then, there were clean-up artists) and polished the vivid drawings.

“Do they dream? Do they cry at night?” He sees the drawings — which weren’t still-lifes or works done with a model right in front of the artist, after all — as “images of long-forgotten dreams.”

Herzog celebrates the striking cliffs of the Ardeche River as something “straight out of a Wagner opera.”  The cave itself is almost as beautiful as the artwork — walls covered with bear claw scratch marks and torch burns made by those who used it, so fresh-looking that the art had its authenticity questioned by early experts (They were discovered in 1994).

Herzog’s poetic turn of phrase makes him the perfect tour guide. Noting those 5,000 years of use, he compares ancient man to modern man and sums up our differences in a sentence.

“We are locked in history, and they were not.”

“It is as if the modern human soul awakened here.”

There are moments of humor (an expert named Wulf Hein dons authentic Paleolithic clothes and plays a bone flute from the era). But the film is a trifle repetitive, as there are only so many images to cover, so many different ways and experts to approach about the era, the art and the people who made it.

Yet “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is another lovely stanza in the epic poem of humanity that Herzog has been writing for half a century.

They should make room for this man on the last Space Shuttle flight. If we’re ever going to know what space looks and more importantly feels like, the visual and verbal poet for the job is the fellow with the German accent and the probing spirit.

MPAA Rating: G

Cast: Werner Herzog,Jean Clottes, Wulf Hein, Dominique Baffier, Jean-Michel Geneste

Credits: Written, directed and narrated by Werner Herzog. A Sundance Selects/History Films release. Running time: 1:30

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