Altamira is a cave in northern Spain in which, in the late 1870s, the first prehistoric paintings were discovered… or perhaps we should say rediscovered. They may have been stumbled upon first by a shepherd named Modesto Cubillas, but Finding Altamira focuses on gentleman scholar and scientist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola (Antonio Banderas: The 33, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water) and his eight-year-old daughter Maria (Allegra Allen), after she follows a dog into the cave and becomes enchanted by the “moving” pictures of bison and other impressive creatures on the rock walls and ceiling.
Maria’s discovery may be apocryphal, but it’s definitely true that Sautuola and his friend and colleague Juan Vilanova y Piera (Nicholas Farrell: Legend, Mortdecai) brought the paintings to the world’s attention in the early 1880s… and then were ridiculed for declaring them to be at least 10,000 years old. (Later research, in fact, dates them much earlier.) The beauty and sophistication of the paintings caused other scientists to doubt a Paleolithic provenance — prehistoric people were not supposed to be capable of producing such magnificent art — and religious types had no truck with the notion that people could have existed “before the time of Adam and Eve.” The familiar battle between science and religion, and over new discoveries that challenge existing knowledge, gets a workout here; oh, there are so many condescending, hidebound old men and monsignors! But mostly this is a lovely portrait of a father-daughter relationship that is grounded in intellect and curiosity, a very rare thing indeed to see onscreen. Marcelino infects Maria with a love of learning and of constant questioning, and not even a punishment from a priest for thinking too radically can dampen her enthusiasm.
The beauty of the cave paintings astonishes the artist (Pierre Niney: Yves Saint Laurent) brought in to document them: he loves their movement and energy and the keen observation of nature they represent, and he may be the first here to recognize that only fully modern humans could have made them. But the art comes alive through Maria’s half-dreamy, half-nightmarish reveries on her mysterious find, as when she imagines a enormous bison heaving and snorting mere feet from her, only to lie down and become a painting. Visually, that’s thrilling, a gorgeous metaphor for how the original artist may have conceived the work. And Maria’s emotional state — as when she believes she is the cause of strife over the cave between her religious mother (Golshifteh Farahani: Exodus: Gods and Kings, Rosewater) and her scientist father — becomes a lovely expression of the reality that ideas are not abstractions: they may be physically insubstantial, but they are real things that can have immense impact on us.