Finding Altamira

I try to watch a film a day. When I can’t, I’ll go back to some recent ones.

What film or films did I see today?

Finding Altamira (2016) directed by Hugh Hudson, starring Antonio Banderas

Last June, I went to Portugal and Northern Spain on a 12-day tour. On the route from Oviedo to San Sebastian, we stopped for several hours at the caves of Altamira. A strange destination, in that we were guided around a simulated version of the cave and its drawings. This was the first site discovered to have primitive man’s drawings, some thirty-five thousand years old. Up to the 1970s, visitors could enter the caves until it was discovered that carbon dioxide in the breath was destroying the paintings.

We learned that a film had just been made detailing the initial discovery of the cave by the daughter of amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. Sautuola met the expected resistance of Spanish society, led by the Church, but the film shows an even more dogmatic scientific community that couldn’t handle the discovery: namely, that primitive man accomplished great artistic achievement (although they weren’t creating art). Sautuloa was humiliated at a conference in Lisbon, accused by many of forging the paintings. The central problem is that many of the drawings appear freshly painted. Sautuola died before the principal archaeologist, Emile Cartailhac, published an article in 1902 admitting his mistake.

The film was directed by Hugh Hudson, best known for the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire (1981). You have a similar theme being advanced in Finding Altamira. The underdog or under-appreciated man or men defies the odds and achieves greatness (or some form of it). Unfortunately, archaeology has little dramatic push (unless you have Indiana Jones available) and you get a technically competent film with little emotional movement. The religion vs. science battle seemed tired in Inherit the Wind (1960); the scientist vs. the amateur had more force. But there was no final race with music from Vangelis.

A film comparable to Finding Altamira, perhaps, is Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), an exploration of the Chauvet Caves in Southern France, location of the oldest known drawings by humans, discovered in 1994.  Herzog pursues a familiar theme in his films: creating art or an artistic representation under difficult circumstances. He needs to get inside the motivations of primitive human beings to see whether they function as he does. The paintings in the Chauvet caves are nearly impossible to get to, even for the primitive painters. Why did they make it so difficult for themselves? The kind of question many people asked when Herzog had a large boat dragged over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo (1982). Maybe he is the closest spiritually to primitive man.

Finding Altamira concentrates on the impossible problems a Spaniard in 1880 faced trying to get the world to accept the seemingly unacceptable. This is a trope for many movie and television melodramas. The viewer is expected to root for the victory of progressive forces (or enjoy the eventual humiliation of the reactionaries). Again, I think of Inherit the Wind.


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