Mom and I haven’t been going to the movies as much as we used to, and when we do, often we’ve been going to extremely arty cinemas in DC that play the movies that only reach a handful of markets during their theatrical runs. Our viewing this year has thus included two obscure documentaries, the French/German/Chilean co-production Nostalgia for the Light, which came out in the U.S. in March, about Chile, astronomy, & the Pinochet regime, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, out in the U.S. right now, which is the (in)famous Werner Herzog giving the world a look into the Chauvet cave, where the oldest surviving cave paintings are preserved, with only a few weeks per year given for the study of them because of their fragility(it would take an aggressive and self-important personality like Herzog to get the permission to film them!).
Because much of the material isn’t well-known, especially outside France or Chile, much of both documentaries is dry explanation, lengthy sometimes, but too necessary to mind. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, with its narrower subject material, also gives time just to show us shots of the cave art, since after all, it’s a bit of an achievement that the audience is able to see it.. It is indeed interesting, and presents itself as so properly. Nostaglia for the Light isn’t done with Herzog’s skill, and though as an astronomy geek, I personally loved the parts about Chilean desert astronomy, for those that aren’t as interested, the film does show trouble.
But neither documentary can carry itself just on that; there needs to be some sort of emotional center. In Nostalgia for the Light, it’s found in the form of the the Chilean women, situated very near the astronomers in their desert observatories, searching for the remains of loved ones “disappeared” by the Pinochet regime. These sequences are extremely hard to watch, but they portray what should be known about. The documentary ties them to astronomy however can be managed, such as noting the scientists and women are both searching for things(though the astronomers themselves are quick to dismiss that parallel; they themselves recognize their work isn’t nearly as important). A better tie is found in the form of a young female astronomer whose grandparents made the hard decision to betray her activist parents to Pinochet’s men in order to save her when she was a baby. Perhaps more effective then any of the shots of the desert, its night sky completely free of light pollution, the observatories, or even the wonders of the cosmos is of a shot of her with her baby, at just the right angle and lighting to bring out a painful resemblance to her mother in a surviving photo of her parents.
Unfortunately, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams has only Herzog. And he goes off on weird philosophical tangents that don’t make much sense to people other than him. It may be the better made film, but it’s not the better film.
In DC, at least The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is playing in the West End Cinema, near Foggy Bottom. Nostalgia for the Light is still making the rounds at film festivals, and will be available on DVD in September.