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By some miracle, Herzog gained permission from French authorities to film inside the renowned Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave discovered in 1994 in the south of France, which Herzog in his narration deems, with justification, “one of the great discoveries in the history of human culture.” So fragile are the prehistoric drawings — the earliest known human art — and the cave floor with its meticulously preserved bear tracks and bones, that only a few scientists have ever been permitted to enter.
Getting inside for a busy few hours to shoot from narrow metal catwalks with lights that emit no heat and highly portable 3D cameras, Herzog and a stripped-down team not only open the cave to a world of moviegoers, he asks all the right questions and gets startling, though-provoking replies from a smart and imaginative group of scientists. To call this movie fascinating is akin to calling the Grand Canyon large.
IFC Films has acquired all U.S. rights, excluding television, to the History Films production. After a theatrical run, one can imagine a long life for “Cave” on television and DVD, perhaps accompanied by a book or even several. The Chauvet Cave will continue to bewitch and inspire audiences for generations to come.
The fact this cave art exists at all is astonishing. A rockslide in the middle of the Ice Age obstructed the cave’s natural entrance. So the cave, used by animals to hibernate and humans to draw, has been sealed for eons. The drawings date back about 35,000 years.
Beyond its existence, though, is the extraordinary quality of the art and what it tells us about early man. The drawings are of animals, some species no longer in existence. Men drew them in charcoal on the irregular sides of the cave. The 3D helps a viewer understand how this gives the pictures a sense of movement. Herzog points to one eight-legged beast — where the extra legs make the animals appear to be running — and calls this “proto cinema.”
One animal drawing will overlay another, but carbon dating shows these drawings occurred 5,000 years apart, a “collaboration” that a modern viewer, living so firmly in a fixed time and place, can barely grasp. Sometimes a bear’s scratch will interrupt a drawing as if the brute itself wanted to contribute.
One artist does stand out; his red palm prints on a cave wall tells us that he stood about 6 feet and had a crooked finger, his signature in essence. He put those prints on the wall 32,000 years ago.
These drawings, Herzog says, represent the dreams of men whose world and outlook is difficult to imagine. One archeologist says the drawers would have imagined spirits within the walls themselves and indeed in the trees and wind outside. He would live in a world of spirits.
Herzog takes this to heart and then wonders what constitutes humanness. The drawings came at a time when two hominids walked the Earth, the Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals. The latter culture yielded no such drawings.
Did these ancient men create art? Perhaps in so doing, they created humanness.
The cave, about 1,300 feet long and fully mapped now by laser scanner, is a thing of awesome beauty. Its stalagmites and the steady dripping of sediment water on animal bones creates a stunning ceiling and floor of sparkly, milky white, a cathedral-like sanctuary with its ashy deposits and fireplaces that now houses the ancient art of man.
Finally, Herzog steps back to allow the viewer simply to gaze at the drawings without commentary. In close-up, the 3D ceases to have much effect. But for those long shots of the cave’s limestone rooms and hibernation wallows, this represents one of the best uses ever of 3D.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (IFC Films)
Production: History Films present a Creative Differences production in association with More 4
Director-screenwriter-narrator: Werner Herzog
Producers: Erik Nelson, Adrienne Ciuffo
Executive producers: Dave Harding, Julian P. Hobbs, David McKillop, Molly Thompson
Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger
Music: Ernst Reijseger
Editors: Joe Bini, Maya Hawke
No rating, 95 minutes
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
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