In Cave of the Forgotten Dreams, master filmmaker Werner Herzog satisfactorily proves you don’t need a huge budget and tons of CGI to inspire awe and wonder in an audience. Instead, he does this only using a few handheld cameras and flashlights. Before seeing this film, I was content to say the best film of the summer was Midnight in Paris, but this humble documentary is one that I’ll never forget. It’s the kind of movie that could get people talking about serious things, like nature, mortality, and human history–that is, if anyone bothers to see it.
Yes, sadly Cave of the Forgotten Dreams made very little money. It made about $5 million in its entire theatrical run. To put it in perspective, the worst movie I’ve seen in recent years would have to be I Am Number Four, and that made $55 million. I’m not necessarily upset that Cave of the Forgotten Dream didn’t bring in money, but because it didn’t bring in viewers. It’s such a beautiful and fascinating film.
Cave of the Forgotten Dreams is about the discovery of the Chauvet cave in France in the ’90s, and more importantly, what was discovered inside of it. The Chauvet cave was once (thousands upon thousands of years ago) a large cave that opened out into a mountain, but after rockslides, it became concealed from the world, only discovered after scientists noticed currents of air rising from the ground. Inside the cave, they discovered walls covered with cave paintings preserved from the ravages of time due to their remoteness. Not only that, but scientists, using carbon-dating, discovered these were the oldest cave paintings known to man, originating somewhere around 34,000 years ago.
The Chauvet cave is closed off to the general public, and even to much of the scientific community. Everything inside is so well-preserved that they don’t want people mucking it up, to the point where they built elevated metal walkways so footprints don’t scuff the cave’s floor. Herzog and his crew of four cameramen/technicians were allowed only a few hours a day to film, over the course of about a week. They are accompanied by a group of archeologists and other scientific people.
Herzog lets the camera slowly and methodically make its way around the interior of the cave, giving the audience a good amount of time to soak in what they are seeing. Some of what’s inside include cave paintings of leopards and rhinocerii (this is in France), animal skeletons presumably used in rites, and footprints from the paleolithic age.
Cave of the Forgotten Dreams is a movie that reminds me of how good documentaries can be when they don’t turn into sound-bytes, short clips, and talking heads. A majority of the movie features nature footage interspersed with minimal narration by Herzog. There are some interview clips, but these are interesting. It’s not all about the Chauvet cave either. There’s other scenes focusing on ancient woodwind instruments, the earliest human sculptures, and a glimpse at a nearby nuclear plant that’s causing albino alligators to be born.
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If you enjoy unorthodox and challenging documentaries like Cave of the Forgotten Dreams, you might enjoy The Case of the Grinning Cat.