By Andrew Travers
“The Truffle Hunters” plays out on screen like the pages of a fairy tale. Though it is a documentary, this visually sumptuous film, filled with whimsical scenes and charmingly eccentric characters, is the stuff of fantasy.
The film, which screens Wednesday night as part of the closing night of Aspen Filmfest, profiles six elderly men and their beloved dogs in a remote stretch of Italy’s Piedmont region who hunt for truffles and closely guard the secrets of their craft.
It takes the viewer rolling around the mud and digging in the dirt with the dogs and then out to the rarefied air of high-end truffle dealers who display their wares like gems on satin pillows and sell them to presidents. Co-directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw found their subjects quite by accident and spent three years slowly gaining unprecedented access to this old and tradition-bound world.
After finishing their most recent film, “The Last Race,” in 2017, Dweck and Kershaw — unbeknownst to one another — took separate family vacations to northern Italy. Both began to hear tales of a secret group of truffle hunters, a mysterious band of octogenarians who live in the mountains with their dogs.
They kept learning more, and returned regularly over the course of three years as this secret slowly opened up to them.
“It took a long time to meet the real truffle hunters,” Dweck recalled in a recent phone interview. “They made us pay our dues. But then eventually they became like family for us.”
Slowly, the hunters agreed to be on-camera. Some agreed to have cameras mounted on their dogs during their arduous hunts, or to let the filmmakers come into the woods with them. After more than a year, Dweck and Kershaw were told about a black market that operated in the middle of the night and connected hunters with truffle dealers.
“We discovered more and more secrets that we had to unravel as we were shooting,” Kershaw said. “I think every time we came back, it surprised them and eventually they realized we were serious.”
The film includes intimate scenes between hunter and dog — in the bath, at the dinner table, in church — and one hunter with his wife, who urges him to stop hunting. In once scene a dealer implores a hunter, age 84, to pass his truffle-hunting secrets on before he dies.
“The Truffle Hunters” is an entrancing 80-minute experience. Its climax, if there is one, is a long shot of a man eating alone in a restaurant, enjoying — with satisfaction and meticulous care — truffles on pasta and sipping red wine while an aria plays on the soundtrack.
The painterly and sumptuous scenes that unfold in “The Truffle Hunters” are a marvel. It vividly captures the remote hilltop villages of Piedmont and a farming culture, tied to the land, that’s yet to be disrupted by 21st century technology.
“It felt like we were moving through a storybook, a fairy tale,” Kershaw said of their immersion in the scene. “We didn’t know what the story of the film would be, but we had this feeling. Figuring out a way to transmit that feeling from this special world, what was our desire to make this film.”
The scenes they capture have a richness that the best costume and set designers and biggest Hollywood budgets could not create. We see an octogenarian truffle hunter with shoulder-length gray hair in the style of Gandolf cracking wood and cooking on a fire in a home built in — and seemingly unchanged since — the 1830s. Another group drinks in a brick-built wine room with old dusty bottles piled on the floor. We see shadowy figures moving about in cobblestone alleys, negotiating truffle prices in whispers.
The filmmakers would typically get one shot per day when filming, they explained. They’d set up a camera and let it run for several hours. So the magic we see on screen is simply what played out without direction or lighting design.
“It was a slow process, but we wanted to shoot that way deliberately because we wanted to allow our characters to be comfortable,” Kershaw explained. “Time was the great luxury we had.”
Purchased by Sony Pictures Classics at the Sundance Film Festival in January, “The Truffle Hunters” has had a limited festival run through the disruptions and cancellations of 2020. It is due for a Christmas Day theatrical release and — for the filmmakers — a much-anticipated screening next month at the Torino Film Festival in Italy, where some of the truffle hunters and dogs from the film will be on hand to see it for the first time.