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Movie Review

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

A gallery of prehistoric art: Amazements abound in director’s ‘Dreams’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 6, 2011

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The German director Werner Herzog has spent much of his career making art with and out of so-called primitive peoples. In “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,’’ he crawls through a small hole in the side of a French cliff and discovers their art. The walls hold amazements in the form of hundreds of paintings and etchings that prove that as far back as 32,000 years ago prehistoric people were regularly representing the world around them. For the archeologists Herzog has followed into the cave, these figures constitute a major science project. For Herzog, it must be like coming home. Cinema’s greatest caveman meets his ancestors. For us, it’s a reassurance: The creative process is astonishingly old and its fruits still surprisingly fresh.

What we come to love about Herzog’s documentary is Herzog’s love itself. This is a man who has risked his life and the lives of others to get movies made. His bravery is unquestioned, if a bit ludicrous. In movies like “Even Dwarves Started Small,’’ “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,’’ and “Fitzcarraldo,’’ he’s been exploitative, reckless, and cruel in chronicling the power of nature and the futility of man. “Cave of Forgotten Dreams’’ is Herzog in a state of blissful awe. The camera gazes up at a painting of a creature that’s been given four extra legs to convey motion, prompting Herzog to exclaim on the soundtrack that the image is “almost a form of proto-cinema.’’ He speaks with the wonder of a child — inasmuch as a 68-year-old with a mischievous Bavarian accent can.

Herzog interviews the men and women who’ve helped map the cave, using laser scanners to pinpoint every position. According to the movie, the cave is 13 feet from end to end, tiny for an art gallery, and the digital map contains 527 million points. Other experts show us musical instruments and tiny sculptures, all of which brings the movie, its archeologists, art historians, and ethnologists to the burning question: Who made these? It’s not the art that inspires awe. It’s the smoldering mystery of the culture that produced it. Herzog is always so handy with The Truth. Not this time. This time he’s the dwarf who started small.

Herzog was inspired after reading an article in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman (who is generously credited as a producer) about the oldest known art. One of the locations was the Chauvet Cave, whose entrance sits high above the Ardèche River in southern France and was virtually hidden. The cave was named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, one of the three speleologists credited with the discovery, in 1994. The cave is closed to the public, but the French Ministry of Culture permitted Herzog to film there. He was allowed a three-person crew — the cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, the sound recorder Eric Spitzer, and an assistant, Erik Söllner — to shoot for no more than four hours a day for about a week.

To enhance the paintings for moviegoers, Herzog decided to film in 3-D. This would allow us to see how the surfaces of the cave were incorporated into some of the paintings and to appreciate the details. A special 3-D camera was built and occasionally required assembly inside the cave. This is the weakest part of the film. I’ve seen it in two different cities. In both, it suffers from drabness. This is the price a movie pays for cave-dwelling with digital cameras and unremarkable light (the job of holding the lights and aiming them fell to Herzog). Thurman describes “a bestiary of such vitality and finesse that, by the flicker of torchlight, the animals seem to surge from the walls, and move across them like figures in a magic lantern show.’’ By the glare of 3-D, some of the images seem to be trapped in the searchlights of FBI helicopters. Better are the few occasions in which those 527 million points are arranged into a constellation.

But the 3-D isn’t a barrier to the movie’s higher powers, just a kind of MSG that distorts proper flavor. There is pure beauty here. In one sequence, as plaintive music plays, the camera pans up at the paintings then down at the ossifications strewn along on the cave floor. We’re allowed to contemplate how much this art has outlived the artists.

As ever, Herzog’s narration makes pure speculation sound like gospel truth. “It’s as if the human soul had awakened here,’’ he says. That cockedeyed certitude has become his stock in trade as a nonfiction filmmaker. The editorials here aren’t quite as appalling as they were in “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,’’ as damning as in “Grizzly Man,’’ or as lyrical as they were in “Encounters at the End of the World.’’ In “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,’’ Herzog states (and overstates) the obvious, and yet from his rapture emerges understandable disappointment. In his interviews with the scientists, he does a lot of coaching and prompting and filling in. It sounds as if he wants divine answers that no one has yet.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Twitter.com: wesley_morris.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS

Written and directed by: Werner Herzog

At: Boston Common

Running time: 90 minutes

Rated: G (a few albino crocodiles)

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