It's a rocky road to the cave paintings in Finding Altamira

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      Starring Antonio Banderas. Rating unavailable

      The most surprising thing about Finding Altamira is that it comes from the much-feted director of 1981’s Chariots of Fire, Hugh Hudson. The Brit, who started as an innovative documentarian, scored another hit with Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes before drifting into obscurity. This historical drama is the first feature from Hudson, who turned 80 last month, in 15 years. And despite a few flourishes, plus some solid work from Antonio Banderas as Marcelino de Sautuola—the amateur scientist who first uncovered the famous cave paintings in northern Spain—it’s pretty much the work of someone going through the motions.

      Utilizing a serviceable, if doggedly preachy, script by Wuthering Heights scribe Olivia Hetreed and Spain’s José Luis López-Linares (who usually works as a cinematographer), the U.K./Spanish/French production was probably doomed no matter who directed it. That happened with the decision to shoot in English, requiring the large multinational cast to whisper haltingly, with generic “foreign” accents, into the close-held microphones of the dubbing studio. This coincides with the cast’s static blocking in restricted spaces, resulting in something resembling an educational diorama more than a movie.

      The most interesting aspect of a story that probably plays better to children than to adults is that the phenomenal paintings—probably done more than 20,000 years ago—were actually discovered, in 1879, by de Sautuola’s eight-year-old daughter. Shown as infinitely receptive to his passion for science and nature, she’s played here by newcomer Allegra Allen, who exerts some force of personality but delivers every line as if unburdening herself of an archaic poem, memorized syllable by syllable.

      Much weaker is the material involving de Sautuola’s religiously devout wife (played by Iran’s elegant Golshifteh Farahani), torn between her husband’s probing rationality and the defensive posturing of the Catholic Church, represented by Rupert Everett with a shaved head and, if I’m not mistaken, a serpent’s tongue. Cartoonish villains abound, with the astounding discovery—which contained remarkably vivid portraits of now-extinct creatures in convincing motion—attacked for being blasphemous, fake, or both. It took the family 20 years to retrieve its reputation, and Finding Altamira helps that more in theory than on-screen.