By Scott Roxborough
The directors of the Oscar best documentary hopeful spent years winning the trust of the secret cadre of men (and their dogs) who spend their lives searching for the edible white gold in Northern Italy.
The opening scene of The Truffle Hunters, the new documentary from directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, could have been from footage shot in the last century.
Or the century before that.
A lone man and his dogs struggle up a steep hillside. In a long shot — so still it looks like a watercolor — all we see are man, dogs and woods. The hills are in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. The man and the dogs are scavenging for the white Alba truffles counted among the most prized, and most expensive, of gastronomic delicacies.
Over the next hour and a half, Dweck and Kershaw draw us into the strange, secretive and often poignantly sad world of truffle hunters, the old men (they are all old, they are all men) who have found their meaning of life in the pursuit of this elusive white gold. And, like the dogs sliding down the muddy hillside in that opening scene, who see their world slowly slipping away.
The Truffle Hunters premiered at Sundance last year, where Sony Pictures Classics quickly snatched it up in a reported $1.5 million deal. The studio specialty label is pushing hard to get the film an Oscar nomination this year for best documentary feature.
The two American directors, who collaborated on 2018's The Last Race — another documentary about a vanishing world, that of small-town stock car racing on Long Island — stumbled across the idea for Truffle Hunters while on (separate) vacations in the Piedmont region.
"It turned out we had been to the exact same village, maybe about a week apart," says Dweck, "and we both noticed the same thing: that this community was like a fairy tale out of time. People weren't using iPhones, they weren't using computers. And they told us the same thing: 'Why are you here in August? You should be here in November, truffle hunting season.' So we asked: 'What's truffle hunting?'"
The answer led the directors down the rabbit hole into a mysterious world unknown even to most locals. They got to know the elusive truffle hunters: an eccentric, sometimes curmudgeonly pack of septuagenarians and octogenarians — Sergio, Carlo, Aurelio — who jealously guard their secrets. But who gradually opened up.
"We spent a lot of time, had a lot of meals, shared a lot of wine with them; they became our friends," notes Kershaw. "So by the time the camera did come out, we had their permission to film, they were in some ways part of the filming process."
We see Sergio sharing his bathtub with one of his sniffing dogs, as he lovingly shampoos and then blow-dries her fur; Aurelio as he stubbornly refuses to share the secrets of his trade with a younger hunter; Carlo as he questions a priest over whether he will still be able to hunt truffles in heaven (the holy father assures him he will).
Angelo, one of the film’s other subjects, has quit truffle hunting entirely because he says the once honorable profession has been corrupted. He even composes a manifesto, banging out an angry statement on his old Olivetti typewriter condemning the greed of dealers who exploit hunters for profit — a single prize truffle can sell for tens of thousands of dollars — and that of scavengers who try to eliminate the competition by setting poison traps to kill other hunters’ dogs.
Climate change is the other specter that hangs over The Truffle Hunters. Warmer winters mean less rain and dryer soil yield fewer of the prized fungi, which grow wild among the roots of tall trees and can't be cultivated.
"Truffle Hunters is quintessentially a great movie because it doesn't allow itself to be sentimental about its subject matter," says Italian director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name), an executive producer on the film. "Greg and Michael aren't trying to lure us in with a story of funny guys and their sweet dogs. They are actually trying to capture the tension between the contemporary world and a centuries-old tradition at the moment it is disappearing."
That tension is evoked in the film's visual style, which merges the modern with the classic. Truffle Hunters has elements of a "fly-on-the-wall" vérité doc — there is no voiceover, commentary or talking heads — but every shot is carefully composed and deliberately framed to evoke the paintings of Italian masters like Titian and Caravaggio.
"It's probably the most beautiful-looking movie of the year," notes Guadagnino.
In an effort to preserve the natural beauty of Piedmont, and to maintain the truffle hunting tradition, Dweck and Kershaw have set up a land conservation fund to acquire some of the best truffle hunting forests in the region that are at immediate risk of deforestation.
"There was a moment when we were filming, we had a phone call at 4 in the morning from Sergio crying: telling us that we should come right away, that they were destroying his family," remembers Dweck. "We rushed down to this part of the forest where he had filmed days before, and two men with chainsaws had just cut down every tree, decimated like two hectares of land, these 200-year-old oak trees. That's when we realized how fragile this ecosystem and this culture of truffle hunting really is."
The Truffle Hunters conservation fund is looking to raise $150,000 to help grassroots organizations in Piedmont buy 10 hectares of truffle forest, which they will preserve and protect for future generations.
"There's a lot of things we want to leave behind from the past but there are things we want to take with us," says Kershaw. "I think right now, especially in the United States, where we're at a point where we're rebuilding in a lot of ways and thinking about what the future is going to be, maybe there's some value in looking at these truffle hunters and their connection to nature, their connection to community."