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Finding Altamira

September 16, 2016
Finding Altamira

For the most part, there’s not a lot in Finding Altamira that you wouldn’t expect from a story about a breakthrough in the study of human origins — or, as they called it, “prehistory” — a mere twenty years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. It promises a period drama setting the emerging science against the established, usually religious authorities. And that’s more or less what the script, by José Luis López-Linares and Girl with a Pearl Earring writer Olivia Hetreed, delivers.

The Cave of Altamira was discovered just off the Basque coast in 1879 by amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola (Antonio Banderas) and his precocious eight-year-old daughter María (Allegra Allen). Inside, María led her father to rooms where the walls and ceilings were covered with charcoal and ochre drawings of animals. Deer and wild boars were identifiable, but most prominent was a herd of steppe bison, which went extinct almost ten thousand years ago. For humans to have possessed this sort of culture that early was astounding, even by the standards of the day’s prehistorians. And for religious authorities it was tantamount to blasphemy.

This authority is here invested in the local Monseñor (Rupert Everett), a real fire-and-brimstone sort, who has Marcelino’s wife, Conchita (Golshifteh Farahani) worried. And she worries not just for Marcelino himself, but that by encouraging María’s inquisitive nature he may be leading her astray. Unfortunately, the Monseñor is played almost to the point of parody, hating modernism simply for undermining the Church’s position. It’s a tempting story from our much more secular position, but it flattens all contrary opinions into mere mean-spirited and jealous tribalism.

But it’s not as if Marcelino is the picture of nuance either. His drift towards atheism is suggested to have been prompted by the death of a son, which is about the oldest trope in that particular book. It’s tempting from a theist perspective to view all atheists as at heart unable to deal with adversity, bitter over their injuries, and turning away from God out of spite. But this too flattens the character into a stereotype.

This is hardly the first or only movie to use those particular cardboard cutouts, though. More interesting is the way Finding Altamira examines the nature of science itself as a social undertaking.

All of prehistory offends the Church, but that hardly means that prehistorians are all in agreement. When Marcelino presents his findings at a conference in Lisbon, no less than the eminent Émile Cartailhac (Clément Sibony) shouts him down. The idea of 10,000 year old cave paintings flies in the face of “established prehistory”. It doesn’t help that this was a Spanish discovery, but the field was dominated by the French.

And here it would be easy to fall into yet another tempting simplification: that science is “merely” a social construct. That was the takeaway of any number of poststructural academics after Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, leading to skirmishes with scientific realists that culminated in the “Science Wars” of the 1990s. But in the most interesting turn, Finding Altamira dodges this trap.

It’s true that science does not proceed as smoothly and straightforwardly as the positivists of the early 20th century would say. The acceptance of Altamira’s implications was held up by largely social obstacles, rather than scientific ones. But where religion stamps its foot and holds fast, science at least tries to raise objections. In this case: if prehistoric people painted these rocks, then where is the soot from their torches? These obstacles can then be argued with and overcome.

Science may be a social undertaking, and subject to social forces, but it comes with a mechanism to modify and refine its statements. And while the currents of society may make the going more difficult for some people, in principle this mechanism is open to everyone. The key insight that opens up new worlds of understanding can come from a Spaniard, or his maid, or his eight-year-old daughter. If all the simplifications make Finding Altamira more accessible to a younger audience that can internalize this essentially democratic message, I’m willing to overlook them.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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