By Nick Vivarelli
Isabella Rossellini first saw “The Truffle Hunters” while serving on the 2020 Sundance jury, where Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s doc — now considered among the frontrunners in the race for the best documentary feature Oscar — first launched.
Their unique cinéma vérité depiction of a vanishing Italian world in the forests of Piedmont, where old men and their dogs hunt white truffles prized by gourmet restaurants around the world, struck a deep chord with Rossellini, to the point of wanting to support it “with one of these virtual interviews set up due to COVID-19,” she tells Variety in a joint interview with the directors. The resulting interview ranged from the earthy aspects of the critically acclaimed “Truffle Hunters” and the ancestral bond between dogs and humans, to her father, Roberto Rossellini, and Federico Fellini’s shared aversion to fast-cut editing.
Isabella, why did “The Truffle Hunters” make such a big impression on you?
Rossellini: It hit me because it really captured that old culture that is so profound and disappearing. It’s also a culture that originated slightly before agriculture, during foraging which is now completely gone. I mean, the only things we forage now really come from the sea. But in Italy we have mushrooms, we have truffles that don’t exist in America, or in many other parts of the world. And to see these old people that probably saved their culture, their tradition — because the success of the white truffle endangers it to be produced commercially –– really moved me. I’m afraid that all that culture will disappear. I thought the film was so precious because of that.
You are speaking to us from your organic farm on Long Island. I imagine there are aspects of this film that intersect with your life and your work. In particular, your “Green Porno” shorts on sex and animals and “Link Link Circus,” the show in which you performed with a dog.
Rossellini: Yes, there are. I remember 20 or 30 years ago, when the Slow Food movement started in Italy, at first I just saw it as trying to save a culinary tradition — just food. But it’s really about saving a whole culture. Because once you start eating fast food, like hot dogs, what you also lose is this incredible culture. It may not come from university, but comes from tradition, handed over by fathers, or grandfathers, to children. And that changes society. And there is a real thirst for it.
When I started my farm, which was initially a private garden, I saw this thirst for that knowledge. People don’t come here to buy a carrot and eat it. Instead, the mother comes and wants her children to know where the carrot comes from. So yes, that’s the connection. And you know, we’re talking about carrots, but you can say that about our animals as well. And, of course, dogs are involved. Nowadays dogs are just to keep us company, but dogs have been hunting dogs. There has been a long, long tradition of a real closeness between humans and dogs working together. Nowadays most dogs are just for company and tenderness, which is an important element. But there have also been service dogs, among which the truffle dog. And the bond between the truffle hunters and the dogs [in the film], isn’t it touching?
Well, it’s funny because if you read the reviews, for some critics “The Truffle Hunters” isn’t really about truffles. It’s actually about dogs.
Rossellini: Yes, it’s about dogs and this symbiotic relationship. But I think another aspect that people can relate to is that these people live so differently. We all have computers; we have telephones; we have television. And they live in their own world in the woods. But the one thing that connects us is this love for dogs. And that is the connection.
Absolutely. Now I’m going to ask you something slightly provocative, because we’re both Italians. Somehow it took these two American directors to go to Alba [in Piedmont] and make this film about something so quintessentially Italian. Don’t you think it’s odd that nobody in Italy thought to do that?
Rossellini: You know, I think sometimes it’s the things that are just too close to you [that] you don’t see. You know, maybe it’s as simple as that. I understood the beauty of Italy once I came to live in America, and I understood how beautiful it is to walk in the street and to have a church on every block. You know, when I was young I would say: ‘Mamma mia! A church here, a church there!’
So sometimes when you are too close, you just don’t see it. Gregory and Micheal, how did you guys discover the “Truffle Hunters” world?
Gregory Kershaw: We were actually both traveling in the area at the same time, almost the same time, independently of each other. And we were in the process of finishing our last film, “The Last Race.” Then we were on a street corner in New York city. And we were talking about this place that we had both visited. And it was just remarkable that we had both been in the same area and been just captured by it. I guess by everything that you’re talking about. It was just karma.
Michael Dweck: We were both coming from places that were disconnected from the land, disconnected from this kind of continuity of tradition. When we landed there, it just felt like magic. It felt like a fairy tale. There was something pulling at us to go back. We knew we had to go back and explore this mystery. That was sort of the starting point of this three-year process. It was just this, this kind of initial feeling, and these kind of rumors of this mysterious culture that sucked us back in.
My impression is that even though I’m sure there was some diffidence towards you, because you are Americans, that you were able to win them over in a way that maybe Italians would not have been able to do.
Rossellini: I can imagine that these older men would trust an American more, against whom they had no prejudices, rather than any Italian who would come with some baggage. Maybe that was the way in.
Dweck: After the first trip, they didn’t think we were going to come back again. We said, ‘We’ll see you soon.’ They said, ‘Ah, yeah, sure.’ Then we came back three weeks later, and then we came back again and again and again. And we kept coming back for three years. I think that helped build trust. Also we started to share with them what we were filming. And I think that helped a lot. A lot of times we would shoot the scene and we would come back maybe the next day, and show them what we had shot, just behind the camera on the monitor. I think they were taken by it. They were taken by how we saw their world, how beautiful their world was, and how respectful we were of their world.
Rossellini: Yes. And it was photographed like a master painting. I appreciated that.
Kershaw: So you can really study it. There was so much to see.
Rossellini: Yeah, well, you know my father was this director of Neorealism. And he always said that the camera should just be an extension of your eyes, and show what is in front of you. And he always thought editing was, like, a shortcoming of technology. Because a film reel was only, you know, whatever minutes long. So you were forced to change the reel. And therefore I think that editing at first — it became an art form eventually — but at the beginning, it was a handicap. So my father always photographed things at eye level; he never moved the camera.
He would only occasionally come in a little bit to underline, to call attention to a detail. But that’s pretty much what my father did. Then editing became [an integral] part of filmmaking, and actually part of bamboozling you — because you can shoot something very stupid, but if you edit it very fast, the audience will be glued to the television or to the screen.
So my father, and Fellini, I remember one day [while we were watching a film], they said to me: ‘Oh, [the rhythm of] this editing: it’s like the drums of the African jungle!’ But to have an American who has the courage not to move [the camera] and show us; make us see with our own eye, what is happening, instead of guiding us so strongly with editing, or music, or something. I thought: ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ I’m sure that you didn’t know that, but it came to you as artists. And when I saw it, I was reminded of this thing that I heard when I was a little girl from Fellini and my father.