“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” Is Prehistoric Sistine Chapel
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Years ago, driving through France, I made a side trip to visit Lascaux, the cavern that’s like a gallery for prehistoric art. Discovered in 1940, the walls of the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Shaft of the Dead Man. the Apse, the Nave and the Chamber of Felines are decorated with paintings that give us an insight to life of early man. Unfortunately for me, it was closed to tourists. Carbon dioxide from visitors was damaging the paintings.
Now, another cave filled with prehistoric art – even older – has been discovered in Southern France. The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave is located within the limestone cliffs above the winding Ardèche River. About 400 meters long, with vast chambers, it was first explored in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet and two speleologist friends. The walls of Chauvet cave are covered with images of lions, hyenas, bears, and rhinoceros – perhaps the oldest paintings in the world. Based on radiocarbon dating these paintings go back to 32,000 BP. The cave’s floor is littered with 150 cave bear skeletons, and its soft clay still holds the imprint of human feet.
And no, visitors (other than archeologist types) are not allowed beyond the thick metal door that closes off Chauvet to the outside world.
With one exception.
Filmmaker Werner Herzog (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”) and a small crew were allowed inside the caverns for a few hours to document the Upper Paleolithic paintings that decorate its walls. Herzog is an important figure in the New German Cinema. He was once called “the most important film director alive” by François Truffaut.
Herzog’s opus is titled “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” His cameras probe nooks and crannies of Chauvet where images of lions prowl, linger lovingly on the broad friezes where painted horses gallop, zoom in to examine the handprints stenciled on the walls next to pointy horned rhinos. He acts as narrator, explaining the findings inside the cave, describing the charcoal and red ochre drawings, pointing his lights into dark corners.
The paintings are exquisite, the horses as well crafted as a sketch by Michelangelo or DaVinci. The cave walls take on the magnificence of a prehistoric Sistine Chapel.
Yes, you can join Werner Herzog’s unique tour – “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” – this week at the Tropic Cinema.
You might think a documentary that merely trains its cameras on paintings inside a dusty old cave would be about as exciting as watching paint dry. But the paint dried here over 30,000 years ago and the experience is mesmerizing. It held my attention from the moment Herzog led us into the cave’s entrance to the moment we saw sunlight again.
[from Solares Hill)