‘Altamira’: Film Review

A historical drama in which Hugh Hudson and Antonio Banderas team up to tell the troubled history of Spain’s Altamira cave paintings.

A first viewing of the 35,000-year-old cave paintings of Altamira in northern Spain inevitably provokes the wow factor. But little of the wow factor is felt on a first viewing of the Antonio Banderas-starring, Hugh Hudson-directed Altamira, where events which played a footnote role in Darwin’s great scientific revolution are reduced to a good-looking but unimaginative period drama in which everything proceeds exactly as expected. Despite the light it sheds on social battles which still resonate to this day in Spain, Altamira’s commercial prospects beyond are slim; this is a project that is likely to lead to awe and wonder in very few people, precisely because it seems to have been calculated to satisfy everyone.

In 1879, amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola (Banderas) and his small daughter Maria (a none too convincing Allegra Allen, called upon to deliver several cutesy lines too many whilst furrowing her brow in winsome anger) are exploring caves on a hillside near their palatial home when they come across some stunning red, yellow, black and brown paintings of animals. (Room is thankfully if briefly made for the cave’s real discoverer, a laborer on Sanz de Sautuola’s land, but both history and the film largely dispense with him,)

The Bottom Line

Picturesque, but routine.

In the imagination of the little girl, the paintings become real bison. Her imaginings generate the film’s only really memorable sequences as these mighty beasts fill the screen, and at one point enter her room — and there’s wow factor aplenty each time someone lies down in the cave to look at the remarkable artworks, which may have taken thousands of years to complete.

Marcelino and Maria have a close bond, which is the emotional heart of the film, but they have the tough job of persuading an array of establishment and church skeptics that the paintings are in fact 10,000 years old and Paleolithic. Accepting this would mean an overturning of beliefs about the Paleolothics, who were previously assumed to be little more than beasts.

Among the skeptics, generally bearded, spluttering reactionary types, are de los Rios (Henry Goodman, whose splutters excellently), the French prehistorian Emile Cartailhac (Clement Sibony), who famously ridiculed Sanz de Sautuola’s findings at Lisbon’s 1880 Prehistoric Congress and does so here whilst prancing irritatingly about, and a high churchman played with a wildly improbable, sinister lasciviousness by Rupert Everett, who gamely seeks to sidestep one caricature but only finds another to replace it.

Closer to home, Marcelino’s wife, the deeply religious Conchita (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, an odd casting choice) is also skeptical about Marcelino’s desire to make his anthropological point, which puts both his honor and his family’s at risk. But this is hardly David vs Goliath: As dramatic stakes, the loss of the honor of a comfortably-off man and his family are too low to sustain much interest or inspire much compassion. Less faithfulness to the facts might have dealt with this.

In its attempt to do justice to the history, the plot — Olivia Hetreed, writer of Girl With a Pearl Earring, co-scripts — shoehorns in too much, sacrificing focus as a result. A side-issue involving the flirtation between Conchita and Ratier (Pierre Niney) — a painter hired by Sanz de Sautuola who’s accused of having painted them himself — is one example, while the deaths of two of his children while still infants are suddenly and cruelly introduced in an attempt to supply him with the psychological depth the character lacks. Banderas, bearded and brooding, delivers a solid performance (albeit featuring a few too many emphatic, Zorro-like gestures) in what could have been a complex and interesting role. But basically Marcelino’s a decent chap through and through, and he’s just as dull as that sounds.

Mark Knopfler and Evelyn Glennie’s gentle guitar/orchestra score has a vaguely Spanish air and includes a smattering of Knopfler’s signature twiddly bits, but it is overused. The film is tourist-board eye-candy throughout, with d.p. Jose Luis Alcaine exploiting to dreamy effect the cliffsides, blue skies and sea of Cantabria in northern Spain in a way which should spark a few summer vacation plans in viewers’ minds. For Spanish audiences, there is a certain gossip value in being allowed in to have a look at the Botin family mansion and gardens, where part of the pic were shot.

The real-life Sanz de Sautuola didn’t live to see his discovery recognized and was furthermore accused of fraud. His daughter later married into the Botin family, who are the owners of a large Spanish bank; one of the film’s producers hails from the same family, meaning that interestingly, Altamira can be seen as an attempt to finally settle old scores, years after the fact.

Production company: Morena Films
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Golshifteh Farahani, Allegra Allen, Rupert Everett, Pierre Niney, Henry Goodman, Clement Sibony, Irene Escolar
Director: Hugh Hudson
Screenwriters: Olivia Hetreed, Jose Luis Lopez-Linares
Producers: Lucrecia Botin, Axel Kuschevatzky, Alexandra Lebret, Alvaro Longoria, Andy Paterson
Executive producer: Laura Bickford
Director of photography: Jose Luis Alcaine
Production designer: Alejandro Fernandez
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Pia Di Ciaula
Composers: Mark Knopfler, Evelyn Glennie
Casting director: Alex Johnson
Sales: Myriad Pictures

Not rated, 92 minutes