How 'The Truffle Hunters' turns obsession over the delicacy into a moving film about life

'The Truffle Hunters,' a film by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, is a gorgeous movie.

By Bill Goodykoontz

What’s your go-to remedy during these stressful times?

Meditation? Exercise? Screaming into a pillow?

All are proven winners. But I’d suggest another:

Watch “The Truffle Hunters.” Take two viewings, in fact, and call me in the morning. This is the sort of movie that’s good for what ails you, whatever that might be.

The documentary, directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, drops us into the soggy, dreary forests of Piedmont, Italy, in the company of the mostly old men who seek the delicacy of the title.

Although that might more accurately refer to the dogs that do the sniffing and the digging, and they are delightful. In some segments Dweck and Kershaw outfit the dogs with a camera above their snouts, so that we got a dog’s-eye view of what it’s like to root around looking for truffles. It won’t help your motion sickness, but it’s a charming effect. (I laughed out loud when they shook and the camera swung back and forth at high speed.)

If you don’t like the idea of a doggie-cam, well, you’ve got an upcoming origin story of Cruella de Vil to look forward to, I guess.

This is not just a movie about truffles. It's also about obsession

Beyond the cuteness, which is considerable, the film is also — like many great documentaries — a story of obsession. Food lovers are obsessed with the white Alba truffle. Brokers are obsessed with obtaining as much of it as they can get their hands on, however that happens. There are lots of suggestions of nefarious goings-on, a black market among them. 

And the men are obsessed with the hunt. 

A priest assures Carlo Gonella, 88 at the time of filming, that he and his dog Titina will still be hunting truffles in heaven. Death also weighs on 84-year-old Aurelio Conterno. He’s not worried about dying himself. He’s more concerned about who will take care of Birba, his dog, who sits on the table beside him while they dine together.

Anyone who writes will appreciate 78-year-old Angelo Gagliardi, who stubbornly and angrily insists he is out of the truffle game, retired. He screams at his typewriter while writing poems and at one point gets so frustrated he decides he’ll just stop typing and have some more wine.

Been there.

The danger to the dogs is real, and heartbreaking

Dweck and Kershaw don’t use narration. (The film is in Italian, with subtitles.) They simply eavesdrop on the proceedings, which is effective. There’s a truffle auction that is hilarious in its earnestness — fitting because this is a serious, and lucrative, business. There’s a broker who has taken over for his father and isn’t completely trusted by the old men; a few phone calls and back-alley conversations spell out why that might be.

There’s also a gruff expert who turns up his nose, literally, at all but the best truffles. Later we see him dining on eggs with a sizable portion of truffle shavings in a swank joint, his gluttony in sharp contrast to the simple meals Aurelio and Birba share.

It’s clear that some people take truffles far too seriously. For instance, the hunters have to constantly be on the lookout for poison traps set for their dogs. Yes, some of these guys are a little overly protective of their secrets and their best locations for finding truffles. But the danger to the dogs is heartbreakingly real.

It’s a sumptuous movie, with gorgeous cinematography (also by Dweck and Kershaw). It won’t necessarily make you want to rush out and pay a fortune for truffles to shave over your eggs. But it will make you appreciate people whose love for something has so fully informed their lives.

One hunter keeps running afoul of his wife, who insists he’s too old to continue hunting, especially at night. Guess how far those complaints go in his stubborn ears? This does, however, lead to one of the most perfect endings of a film you’ll ever see, a summation of life and obsession in a warmly funny scene that captures everything beautiful about the film, and a whole lot more.

'The Truffle Hunters,' 4.5 stars

Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★

Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★

Directors: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw.

Cast: Carlo Gonella, Aurelio Conterno, Angelo Gagliardi.

Rating: PG-13 for some strong language.

Note: In theaters April 9. In Italian, with subtitles.

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