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Movie Review: Herzog’s ‘Cave’ both awesome and immediate

He’s 68 years old and narrates his documentaries in an unmistakably raspy whisper, his heavy German accent adding an air of mystery to everything he’s describing.

And yet Werner Herzog has such obvious enthusiasm for the discoveries he depicts in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” it’s as if you’re listening to a giddy little kid who learned the coolest thing at school today and can’t wait to tell you all about it.

That’s just one of the many fascinating contradictions that mark the latest film from Herzog, who previously brought us tales of bears (“Grizzly Man”) and penguins (“Encounters at the End of the World”). Here, he prowls around a French cave containing spectacular prehistoric artwork that was closed off to the outside world over 20,000 years ago because of a rock face collapse. Once scientists found the Chauvet Cave in 1994 and began investigating inside, they came across vivid and pristine images of horses, bears, rhinos and other creatures that they estimate are over 30,000 years old — almost twice as old as previous finds.

The drawings were so crisp and clean, the researchers doubted their authenticity at first. Now they’re calling this one of the most important cultural finds ever — and not only did Herzog gain unprecedented access, he shot it all in 3-D.

Now, we’re not always a fan of the technology around here, but not only is the 3-D NOT gimmicky, it actually enhances the viewing experience — makes these images seem more tactile and immediate. “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” immerses us in a space that’s at once enormous and darkly cramped, full of shimmering crystal formations and scattered cave bear skulls.

The 3-D heightens not just the sense of texture but of movement; because the paintings were often rendered on curved surfaces, with overlapping animal legs to suggest galloping, the lighting and camerawork make them appear to be in motion — or as Herzog himself phrases it, it’s “almost a form of proto cinema.” It’s awesome and it makes you feel incredibly small and insignificant by comparison, and yet Herzog also conveys a sense of humanity, which makes it impossible not to feel connected to these people from many thousands of years ago.

One great detail the scientists share: They could tell that the same man, who was about 6 feet tall, drew throughout the cave because he left his red hand print all over, which revealed the same crooked finger over and over again.

Herzog didn’t have much time or space to capture all this, and he had to work with a stripped-down camera crew that was forced to remain on narrow, metal catwalks to ensure the sanctity of the cave. And yet the finished product, with its shadows and its string-heavy score, creates a feeling not just of wonder but also of danger and even a bit of fear.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” does grow a bit repetitive though, and probably could have been more effective if it had been a half-hour shorter. Once you’ve marveled at all the artwork and appreciated its significance, it’s like: OK, we get it. But then, Herzog ends the film with still more weird and wondrous imagery — which, hopefully, will be the inspiration for his next documentary.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” an IFC Films release, is rated G. Running time: 90 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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