Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010, Werner Herzog)

Suppose someone told you that Werner Herzog made a documentary about the cave containing the world’s oldest prehistoric paintings. If you haven’t seen this, try to imagine the finished product. Chances are you’ll be pretty close to what Herzog actually churned out. In the case of many of Herzog’s more esoteric docs, there’s the feeling that he chose the subjects primarily because he wanted to experience them firsthand, but few of them have felt more like home videos from the world’s most exclusive working vacation than this one. Naturally, the stuff in the caves is the film’s highlight- for once, the 3-D actually works in the film’s favor, the extra dimension providing depth and texture to both the paintings and the caverns as a whole, and Herzog’s government mandated use of handheld lanterns enhance the beauty of the underground shots in a way more traditional lighting otherwise could not. Unfortunately, Herzog unwisely underscores these majestic shots with an portentous score that overwhelms the visuals- a particularly egregious misstep coming so soon after a scientist beseeches the other visitors to listen to and appreciate the silence of the cave.

Likewise, the stuff above ground is largely from the standard Herzog playbook, such as a cavalcade of esoteric interview subjects encouraged by the director to show off their idiosyncrasies, including an experimental archaeologist who dresses in reindeer pelts and the master perfumer literally trying to sniff out another undiscovered cave. All in all, there are precious few surprises in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, although the out-of-left-field postscript that closes the movie almost compensates. Still, if the idea of seeing immaculately preserved cave paintings from thirty millennia ago holds any interest for you, then walk, don’t run, because considering how few people actually get the chance to visit the Chauvet caves, this will probably be your only chance to check them out. So even if Cave is a disappointing film, it’s an important one nonetheless.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

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