Imagine for a moment that you could be swiftly whisked away from your life, from lockdown, from the load of pressures bearing down relentlessly, off the forests of Northern Italy. This is the bliss offered by The Truffle Hunters, an enchanting and immersive documentary about the eccentric old men—and their dear dogs!—who search day and night for the highly coveted white Alba truffle. With an unobtrusive execution, documentarians Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw usher audiences into their world, from humble homes to sprawling woods, posh auction blocks, and dark alleys, where haggling is done by headlights.
The Truffle Hunters begins in an areal shot, looking down upon a steep hill. Through the tree cover, you can make out two people and two dogs. There will be no talking-head interviews, where such men might answer crisp questions about their process. There will be no voiceover serving as a handholding guide through the traditions and trials of truffle hunting and sales. Instead, Dweck and Kershaw allow a curated collection of scenes to play out and build context.
Following, a handful of characters, from hunters to dealers to an auctioneer with a posh palette, The Truffle Hunters gives a well-rounded view of this curious industry. However, the title hints the film’s makers know who the true stars here are.
There is Aurelio, a spry hunter whose closest companion is Birba, his adorable dog and partner in the search. It’s the dogs that sniff out where this rare truffle is buried. So, a good dog is worth their weight in gold. Elderly Aurelio is keenly aware of this, as he is of his own impending mortality. When a family friend tries to pry out the locations of his secret hunting spots, the old man laughs, proclaiming they’ll go with him to his grave. But Birba. For her, he worries. He cuddles her and feeds her treats, and promises he will find her a loving home. Perhaps, he ponders, he can leave his house to a “big woman” who’d have heart enough to give this darling dog due love.
In sharp contrast to Aurelio’s sweetness is a scowling neighbor who has retired from hunting because of the viciousness that has crept into the trade. He spits with fury over the sabotages some hunters now lay down, resulting in flat tires and poisoned dogs. His scenes contain an authentic fury, yet sometimes where the artifice of this doc is exposed. For instance, when he settles in to write a manifesto on his typewriter, the camera is already in place before it, clearly staged for a clean shot. He needs some outlet to verbalize his frustrations with his field. So, he dictates boisterously while his gnarled hands struggle to keep up on the keys. Through his righteous rants, the risks of these hunts are made clear, giving setup to one sequence that is not graphic but nonetheless unnerving.
Then, comes Carlo, an 80-year-old hunter with a smile as unshakable as his desire to hunt truffles. He was my favorite. Carlo reminded me of my beloved late grandfather, whether he was guilelessly annoying his broad-shouldered wife as they cleaned a mountain of tomatoes, or politely brushing off the advice of his doctor, or sneaking off—despite warnings and protestations—to go on the hunt once more. His enthusiasm and live-for-the-moment attitude blazing from him like a beacon, inviting and uplifting.
Of course, these men are not the only truffle hunters in the film. Their dogs are also offered the chance to share their perspective on the hunt. Which is to say: they strap a GoPro camera on a dog! Thus, we are thrust into the point-of-view of a hunting dog as it races through the woods. The frenzied rush of brush swinging by, the excited pant, the snuffle of his nose, it all takes the immersion of The Truffle Hunters to the next level. You can almost feel the grass beneath your feet and smell the distinct stink of truffle in the air.
It is absolutely sublime.
Through all this, Dweck and Kershaw demystify this elite ingredient with a keen determination to not only capture information but also atmosphere. Sure, several sequences seem staged as a means to give voice to a particular viewpoint or two. Yet there’s a charm to this too, as its players grin mischievously or stiffly strive to powerfully make their moment matter. There’s an authenticity in that, as the camera’s presence reminds them of the audience they’ve not yet met, the stranger they’re eager to have in their home and giddy to impress. Even in these moments of awkwardness, the warmth and sincerity are glorious and almost overwhelming. I watched much of this film grinning ear-to-ear, enraptured by this world of flavor, determination, and contagious joie de vivre. This is all to say, The Truffle Hunters is an exhilarating, sophisticated, and life-affirming delicacy.
The Truffle Hunters played as part of New York Film Festival 2020’s Main Slate.
New York Film Festival runs September 17-11. For more on how you can participate, visit the NYFF website.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. Our reviewers are covering the films remotely with the use of screening links.
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