A premium mix of the sublime and the loopy is the cinema of Werner Herzog, and the filmmaker, explorer, philosopher and semi-celebrity goofball affirms that status with his latest documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”
Exploring prehistoric art, the film takes viewers both into a phenomenally treasure-filled cavern and back in time to the possible “beginning of the modern human soul.” Both journeys, despite a sometimes-hampering 3-D ingredient, prove extraordinary.
In 1994, archaeologists in southern France discovered a sealed-off cave, later christening it Chauvet Cave, and discovered drawings inside dating back more than 30,000 years — some of the oldest known art in history.
For conservation reasons, the site was made accessible to only a few scientists, but leave it to Herzog: The filmmaker received permission from the French government to film inside the cave.
Shooting with 3-D equipment under strict guidelines — they could operate only from a narrow walkway, for starters — Herzog and his small crew strikingly captured some of the pristinely preserved drawings, enabling audiences to experience both the art wonders and the setting in which they were created.
The drawings consist largely of skillfully rendered charcoal images of animals of the era, with the cave walls containing cave-bear claw scratches in some cases. It’s a splendid site-specific canvas. Pictures of overlapping equines even convey motion.
The cave footage — which also features animal bones, an image of a female minotaur, and stalactites and stalagmites that Herzog turns into visual poetry — is exquisite, but not really enough for a full-length film.
Fortunately, Herzog fills out the picture enlighteningly and engagingly. It all adds up to a terrific adventure flick and a stirring consideration of what constitutes art and distinguishes mankind.
Talking-heads passages feature interesting and endearing oddball experts providing details about prehistoric life, art and faith.
Herzog’s trademark voice-over, considering such aspects as the history of art and the intentions of a wolf, is as distinctively weighty-wacky and contagiously enthusiastic as ever.
“Do they dream? Do they cry at night?” he says of the artists.
Herzog ends with an off-the-wall moment that is probably all wrong but somehow all right — a bit involving albino crocodiles that rivals the director’s “Bad Lieutenant” iguana moment for reptile looniness.
More frustrating is the 3-D. Herzog has described the technology as a means of capturing how the contours of the cave give the drawings their own 3-D effect. While these intentions might have merit in the cave scenes, any such results are counteracted by the cheesy, pop-out-in-your-face look the 3-D gives the interview segments.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Starring Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes
Written by Werner Herzog, Judith Thurman
Directed by Werner Herzog
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes