Only slightly more compelling than those stiffly staged dramatic reenactments that alternate with talking-heads commentary in second-rate cable-TV docudramas, “Finding Altamira” relies heavily on the dynamic underplaying of Antonio Banderas to sustain interest during a respectful yet unexciting slog through an obscure historical episode. Director by Hugh Hudson (“Chariots of Fire” … but, on the other hand, “Revolution”) attempts to imbue this attractively mounted period piece with the sort of socially-conscious gravity that was a hallmark of Stanley Kramer’s “prestige pictures” of the 1950s and ’60s. Unfortunately, Hudson also peppers his film — which details the remarkable 1879 unearthing of cave paintings dating back to the Paleolithic Era in Cantabria, Spain — with fantasy sequences involving the bison represented in those paintings. Quite inadvertently, these scenes, meant to be the product of a precocious child’s imagination, come off as not entirely unwelcome comic relief.
Banderas plays Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a well-to-do amateur archaeologist and prehistorian whose insatiable curiosity and acceptance of Darwinian principles often place him at odds with his loving but devoutly religious wife, Conchita (Golshifteh Farahani), and a dogmatic local monsignor (Rupert Everett). When Marcelino and Maria (Allegra Allen), his worshipful 9-year-old daughter, find millennia-old paintings of bison in the Altamira cave on his property, he is thrilled by what he deduces is evidence that prehistoric humans attained intellectual prowess thousands of years earlier than 19th-century scientists had heretofore theorized. Much to his dismay, however, his discovery brings him more pain than acclaim.
Marcelino is denounced as hubristic, if not downright heretical, by the monsignor, causing Conchita no end of distress. (Galileo is pointedly referenced during a key early scene.) Worse, the enthusiastic amateur is publicly humiliated by implacable experts — chief among them the noted Émile Cartailhac (Clément Sibony), one of Marcelino’s scientific idols — and accused of faking the cave paintings with the help of a young artist (Pierre Niney) who, not incidentally, may be in love with Conchita.
In the midst of all this turmoil — actually, even before her dad gets brickbats tossed his way — Maria repeatedly imagines the bison angrily stampeding off the cave ceiling, and at one point gathering just outside her bedroom door. It’s easy to admire the special effects employed to animate these fantasies, but rather more difficult to refrain from laughing out loud at them.
Banderas labors under the handicap of having to convey Marcelino’s sagacity with clumps of stilted dialogue provided by scriptwriters Olivia Hetreed and Jose Luis Lopez Linares. (“It is impossible to ask too many questions, as long as you pay attention to the answers.”) Still, he acquits himself admirably with his restrained yet subtly detailed portrayal of an intelligent man subjected to the stings of intolerant attitudes and professional jealousies.
The supporting players, sporting a variety of accents, range from adroit (especially Farahani and Allen) to over-the-top. As the ineffably sinister monsignor, Everett — whose shaven head and self-satisfied grimaces suggest a cross between Benito Mussolini and Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz — very likely gave Hudson exactly what the director asked for. But that’s no excuse.
It should be noted, by the way, that much of “Finding Altamira” was handsomely filmed by Jose Luis Alcaine in many of the actual locations (including the Altamira cave itself) where the true-life drama unfolded more than 130 years ago. Indeed, despite the unevenness of the movie as a whole, the behind-the-scenes talents — including production designer Benjamin Fernandez, composers Mark Knopfler and Evelyn Glennie, and costumer Benjamin Fernandez — deserve credit for doing more than their fair share of the heavy lifting.