It sure was convenient when amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola discovered the Altamira cave paintings on his considerable Cantabria property. However, it would be far from lucky. He expected the Spanish Catholic Church to resist the implications of the finding, but when leading European archaeologists refused to even consider his evidence for parochial and dogmatic reasons, he felt betrayed by science. Humanity appears to devolve before his eyes in Hugh Hudson’s Finding Altamira (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Narrating from the vantage point of adulthood, María Sautuola recalls being there with her father to see it al. Technically, it was rustic hunter Modesto Peres (a bit player) who found the cave and María who first noticed the ceiling paintings, but it was Señor Sautuola who immediately grasped their significance. Based on the rock formations surrounding the cave, the paintings would have to be 10,000 old—and they were far more sophisticated than anything previously attributed to the primitives.
Obviously, the 10,000-year-old business could cause conflict with the Church and Sautuola’s devout wife Conchita (played by the Iranian Golshifteh Farahani), with whom he has essentially agreed to disagree with on the subject of evolution. However, his proper academic friend Prof. Juan Villanova y Piera (portrayed by the English Nicholas Farrell, with his usual earnest dignity) immediately supports his findings. To paint high quality reproductions, Sautuola will hire his wife’s art restoration expert and not so secret admirer Paul Ratier (Frenchman Pierre Ninay), while the local Monseñor spreads malicious slander. That would be Englishman Rupert Everett in his shtickiest performance since hamming it up as headmistress Camille Fritton in the St. Trinian’s franchise. However, the elitist dismissal of the leading experts in the field will profoundly demoralize Sautuola (that would be Antonio Banderas, an actual Spaniard).
Altamira is Hudson’s first full narrative feature since I Dreamed of Africa in 2000, but it veers even further from the heft and scope of Chariots of Fire and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, which are still the primary films he is known for. Obviously, Altamira was conceived as a Euro analog of Inherit the Wind, because screenwriters Olivia Hetreed & José Luis López-Linares belabor the reason-versus-faith well past the breaking point of viewers’ patience. We just so get it already.
Perhaps not so shockingly, it is the accomplished Farahani who scores the only surprises as the forceful Señora Sautuola. Banderas is solidly upright and convincingly Spanish as the Señor. However, given Everett’s widely reported choice words for his former Catholic faith, casting him as the Monseñor seems like an ill-advised stunt that openly invites tittering.
Altamira takes itself so seriously, it just begs for some deflating mockery. Frankly, its ever so well-intentioned pronouncements in drawing rooms and lecture halls would play better on the small screen, perhaps on the PBS stations that programmed The Man Who Lost His Head. It is the sort of awkwardly fervent misfire one can safely disregard. For the record, it opens this Friday (9/16) in New York, at the Village East.