MPI // 2010 // 90 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // November 29th, 2011
"Will we ever be able to understand the vision of the artists over such an abyss of time?"
In 1994, the equivalent of a 32,000-year-old Louvre was found in a cave in France by Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel, and Christian Hillaire. Unlike the Louvre, it's not open for you to visit on your next vacation (as indicated by a rather imposing, and locked, steel door) -- that is, unless you're a scientist or documentarian Werner Herzog. Herzog and a small film crew tagged along with some experts to visit the cave and bring back some snapshots for the folks back home. He didn't bring back any T-shirts, but Cave of Forgotten Dreams is souvenir enough.
There's some flaring from the miner's helmet lights the crew uses, and the camera is of a "non-professional" grade, but the footage of the cave drawings is still rather impressive. Much of Cave of Forgotten Dreams lets the drawings of horses, mammoths, and rhinos speak for themselves, with the camera alternately panning the walls and closing in on favorite drawings. The drawings are set to music, which can occasionally give them the feel of a bizarre relaxation DVD, but can also be quite majestic. Herzog describes the drawings as providing a feeling of motion; I'd describe it more as a sense of depth. Either way, they're not just stick figures or simple caricatures.
Of course, the movie isn't all cave drawings; if it were, it might actually turn into that relaxation DVD. There's a laser scanner mapping of the cave, philosophical narration from Herzog, some expert interviews, and a couple of miscellaneous surprises. The surprises -- including a museum visit to see the first sculpted or carved figure of a naked woman, and a glimpse of mutant crocodiles luxuriating in the steam from a nuclear reactor -- could be the highlights of the film outside of those silent scans of the artistic walls.
There's just enough text on the screen throughout to give you proper spellings and other vital information. Some graphics include French words, but nothing that should be hard to decipher. There's also a 39-minute film, "Ode to the Dawn of Man," which follows the recording of the music at the Protestant Church of Haarlem in the Netherlands. It's mostly music, with the occasional shouting of instructions; infrequent snippets of onscreen text tell you what you need to know.
The weird part is that even Herzog might find his narration and philosophizing superfluous. When he asks if we'll ever understand the artists' vision, I'm guessing he doesn't, and he knows it. That seems to be the final point: while we can't fully understand what these ancient artists were doing, we can still appreciate their work.
Occasionally, there's a philosophical question that seems irrelevant (at least until we can actually ask the mutant crocodiles what they think of the cave paintings and get an answer), but Herzog does a fine job of presenting the cave drawings and letting us simply appreciate them.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated G