Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) written and directed by Werner Herzog
In December of 1994, some spelunkers in France stumbled upon a cave with wall paintings that date back over 30,000 years. They are the oldest works of art extant, have been studied by a variety of scientists, and kept under lock and key by the French government. German filmmaker Werner Herzog was given limited, supervised access to the caves for a few weeks to make a documentary about the paintings. This movie is worth seeing just for the chance to see the amazing pre-historic artwork. Herzog films them with an expert eye, catching the details and simulating what the flickering lights of the torches early men and women must have used. The music is appropriately primal and evocative. The occasional use of heartbeats is a little on the nose but work on occasion.
Herzog also interviews the scientists, a mixed group of archeologist, paleontologists, art historians, and others. He draws out the scant details of what the lives of the ancient artists may have been like. The cave paintings were done by more than one person and the evidence points to the possibility that some paintings were done 5000 years after the oldest paintings. Herzog explores the possible meaning of the drawings (most of which are of animals, though there is half of a human female form and several handprints) and their context. The cave is full of animal bones but no human ones. One bear skull is set in the middle of a flat rock suggesting an altar. Bridging the gap between the twenty-first century A.D. and 28,000 years ago is a great challenge. A lot of tantalizing bits lead to interesting speculation by the scientists and Herzog. Herzog's postscript trying to create a new perspective was a bit much for me. Even so, the movie brings up a lot of interesting issues about human nature, history, and art.
Even with its G rating, the movie is a bit too slow and meditative for little kids. I didn't show it to J and L because I don't think it will capture their imaginations the way it did mine.