‘Chariots of Fire’ Director Hugh Hudson on His Antonio Banderas-Starrer ‘Finding Altamira’

Christopher Vourlias
Variety

ANTALYA, Turkey — It’s been 16 years since the release of Hugh Hudson’s last feature film, “I Dreamed of Africa,” but the 80-year-old helmer has hardly been in an artistic drought. Directing three documentaries over the past decade – while also bringing his iconic “Chariots of Fire” to the stage in London – Hudson seems to have settled into the late-career stage of his life.

Days after his new movie “Finding Altamira” screened at the Antalya Int’l. Film Festival, where he’s also heading the international jury, Hudson acknowledges that some of his recent passion projects “have been difficult to get going.” Over the course of his 50-year career, though, the director has learned to be patient.

“I haven’t made many films in my life,” he says. “I’m quite particular. I want to do what I want to do. I try not to be a director for hire.”

It was nevertheless the producers of “Altamira” who approached Hudson about helming the film, a period drama about the discovery of Paleolithic cave paintings in 19th-century Spain.

Starring Benicio del Toro as Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, the amateur archaeologist and prehistorian who makes the remarkable find, it tells the story of a man whose unwavering conviction places him in the crosshairs of both a Church which labels him a heretic, and a scientific community skeptical of his claims.

Given his lifelong interest in prehistoric art, Hudson was intrigued by the script. He also found himself gripped by the story of a man whose “innocence is manipulated by the society in which he lives,” a theme he’s returned to throughout the course of his career.

“It’s just something I’ve been drawn to,” he says, noting how “Chariots” at its core is the story of two young innocents struggling against authority in a society rigidly defined by class.

Nostalgia, too, is central to that film, and Hudson effortlessly evokes the emotion on the hotel terrace in Antalya, surrounded by the dwindling sunlight of a Mediterranean dusk. “We have lost our innocence in a way,” he says, reflecting both on a string of global crises – a Brexit vote he views as calamitous; the ongoing circus of the American presidential campaign; the Syrian war that drags on just across Turkey’s southern border – and the state of Hollywood today.

In an era of comic-book tentpoles and global sales agents, Hudson says “Chariots” – an unlikely drama about religion and class starring two unknowns – wouldn’t have gotten made today. Financing “Altamira” was no less of a challenge, though the producers were able to bring in enough private equity to push it across the finish line.

“It’s a really difficult job we have as filmmakers who want to make these individual, personal films,” he says.

Though “Altamira” didn’t start as his personal project, it found its way into his heart once he was at the helm. Partly that can be attributed to the subject itself, which still fills Hudson with a sense of wonder.

“The first time you see [the cave paintings], they’re just remarkable,” he says. “They [have] so much movement in them. They are very surprising, and very powerful.”

Access to the original cave is heavily restricted, but a meticulous replica has been constructed nearby, for the sake of both gawky tourists and Hollywood crews. That site was shut down for two weeks for the “Altamira” shoot, though Hudson says it was still an impressive technical feat to pull off, with the crew squeezed into its confines and laboring to light the cave as if “you were discovering it for the first time.”

The finished product has met with mixed reviews, although Hudson – whose critical reception has run the gamut from the heavily lauded “Chariots” to the widely panned “Revolution” – takes it all in stride. As a filmmaker accustomed to working from the past, he knows how much perceptions can change with a bit of historical distance.

After a 2012 reissue, “Revolution” has enjoyed a wave of critical reappraisal. Even “Altamira”’s Marcelino, who died in disgrace, is celebrated for his discovery today.

“It’s a classic film that I made, on my terms,” he says, of “Altamira.” “Classic Hudson.”

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