In the forests of Piedmont, Italy, a band of men in their seventies and eighties — plus their dogs — hunt for the white Alba truffle, one of the world’s rarest and most expensive delicacies. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s film follows them and the increasingly lucrative market that surrounds their prize.
Executive produced by Call Me By Your Name’s Luca Guadagnino, this enchanting, Oscar short-listed documentary dives into the shrouded-in-mystery profession of truffle hunting. Filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, whose previous film The Last Race examined the completely different sub-culture of stock car racing, have created a funny, charming, very human insight into an almost defunct skill. It never really punches you between the eyes but, through thoughtful, clever filmmaking, it does what many great documentaries do — provides a glimpse into a world you previously knew nothing about — to deliver an entertaining, if melancholy, portrait of a dying way of life.
The Truffle Hunters opens on a Herzogian long shot of a man making slow progress through branches, brush and bramble on a steep slope, with only two black-and-white dogs for company. It’s an image that encapsulates the film’s subject matter in one handy moment. The film’s heroes are the foragers, old men from rural villages equally devoted to their dogs as hunting for the elusive white Alba truffle in the Piedpoint forests of Italy. We meet truffle hunters like Sergio, who has the air of an ageing rock star, and Carlo, who is reduced to climbing out of the window to go foraging to avoid his disapproving wife. These are men — it is a male-dominated pursuit — who are out of step with the modern world, but completely at one with nature.
What it lacks in narrative drive, it more than makes up for in lovely vignettes.
Yet the film is also alive to the big-business endgame of these men’s simple pursuits, as it explores how their life’s work has become a booming business: Dweck and Kershaw tease an image of a red velvet cushion before revealing its purpose, as the plinth for a mega-truffle that will be auctioned off for huge bucks. The film reveals threats to the idyllic lifestyle — dog poisoners, climate change and deforestation rendering truffles extinct — but revels in the sense of men taking an almost spiritual sustenance and joy in simply carrying out their work. As such, what it lacks in narrative drive, it more than makes up for in lovely vignettes; priests blessing a hunter and his hound for truffle season; truffle brokers on a street corner doing a sale like a drug deal; a gourmet buyer melting in a reverie over shaved truffle on a fried egg to the strains of Tosca.
Dweck and Kershaw manage to find wry images to document the lifestyle — 84-year-old truffle-hunting ninja Aurelio sharing a plate with his pooch Birba — and even throw in a canine cam, a camera strapped to a dog’s head to give a mutt’s-eye view, the opposite to the film’s slow — like rural life — pace. The compositions are painterly, sometimes whimsical and Wes Anderson-y (the tableau of a couple eating dinner in their rustic home), sometimes bursting with saturated colours (the green grapes really pop). While a film about high-end cuisine, The Truffle Hunters is also a refined feast for the eyes.
The Truffle Hunters is a low-key delight, a poignant lament for a fading art that doubles as foodie heaven. Go on a full stomach.