Paul Bahn sifts fact from fiction in the silverscreen telling of an extraordinary discovery.
Rarely does a true archaeological story become the basis of a movie. Yet this is what we have with Finding Altamira. It recounts the discovery in 1879 of Ice Age art on a cave ceiling at Altamira, provoking intense and acrimonious debate in the world of archaeology. The film is directed by British-born Hugh Hudson (of Chariots of Fire, Greystoke, and Revolution fame), and the principal role of Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola is taken by Spaniard Antonio Banderas, while his wife Conchita is played by the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. Another important character is their 8-year-old daughter Maria, well played by the British actress Allegra Allen, who is roughly the same age as Maria was at the time of the discovery.
The film is a visual treat and was largely shot in the correct places – the facsimile of the cave, the Sanz de Sautuola family’s park and house, and nearby locations such as Santillana del Mar and Comillas. The music, by Mark Knopfler and Evelyn Glennie, is well suited to the action, and the script ably explains the controversy and debates surrounding the discovery. In addition, the filmmakers resisted the temptation to show the whole decorated ceiling as we see it today in the facsimile, with bright electric light. Instead, we catch glimpses of the images by the light of a 19th-century lamp.
However, the story of Altamira, though gripping, is not enough to fill 90 minutes of drama, and so ‘Hollywoodisation’ has been applied. The most significant change is that Sanz de Sautuola’s wife takes centre stage. Conchita is portrayed as a devout Catholic who, encouraged by a devious priest (played by Rupert Everett), is in conflict with her husband as his discovery threatens the Creationist doctrine of her faith. This is nonsense. Conchita played no part in the Altamira story, and we know almost nothing about her.
There are just two photographs of her, both as an old woman, and nothing is recorded about her beliefs, let alone any opposition to the discovery. It seems the movie has borrowed the plot of the 2009 film Creation, which presents an account (perfectly true, in this case) of the emotional turmoil caused to the devout Emma Darwin by her husband Charles’s theories.
Another major point on which the film strays from the truth concerns the 1880 international conference in Portugal, where Sanz de Sautuola’s find was presented to mostly disbelieving prehistorians by his friend, the geologist Vilanova. In the film, Sanz de Sautuola himself tries to present Altamira at the conference, only to be virulently opposed by the French archaeologist Cartailhac, and his colleague the engineer Harlé, who had been to see the cave for himself and had concluded that it was a modern production. Here again, the truth is somewhat different: far from attacking Vilanova, Cartailhac merely walked out of the conference hall in disgust; and Harlé was sent by Cartailhac to see the cave in 1882, two years after the conference!
One of the major controversies in the original debate involved the French painter Paul Ratier, who was employed by Sanz de Sautuola to produce an exact replica of the cave art. Sceptics believed Ratier painted the ceiling himself, possibly in cahoots with Sanz de Sautuola. While the film hints at an attraction between Conchita and the handsome young painter, in reality Ratier was a 37-year-old deaf-mute.
Despite these minor liberties taken with the truth, I enjoyed the film, and recommend it to CWA readers. The DVD version includes a dedication to José Antonio Lasheras, director of the Altamira cave and museum, who died in a car crash on his way to see an early screening of the film. He will be sadly missed.
This article appears in CWA 81. Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.