by Joey Magidson
Foodies all across the globe know what goes into acquiring truffles (as well as the cost to their wallets). Not just an expensive delicacy, it’s a sought after item that, no matter its incarnation, requires special skills to attain. That’s where the top dollar comes into play, but that’s not really the focus of The Truffle Hunters, a documentary playing at the 2020 New York Film Festival. Instead, it’s about those who hunters who are able to forage a truffle for the enjoyment of those able to afford it. If it sounds like a quirky and odd premise for a doc, it is, but it’s also an oddly compelling one.
The Truffle Hunters isn’t really about the food, but far more about those who seek it out. With some incredible access to the craft on the part of the filmmakers, the movie showcases the unique Italian men who are able to, along with some furry friends, track down some truffles, essentially keeping the world market going. If some of the titans who enjoy a truffle in their food knew who was going to get them in the first place, they’d be more than a little surprised.
Food docs in general tend to lean either into the decadence of particular items or meals, the need to eat healthier, or the obsession that chefs have for perfection. This isn’t one of those films, giving you glimpses of the delicacy being eaten, but almost considering that as an after the fact bonus. You’ll finish this flick and be hungry, for sure, but that’s hardly the main objective.
Centering on the quest to find the prized White Alba truffle, the documentary takes us to the forests of Northern Italy. Deep in the forest one can find the truffle, but not just anyone can unearth it. In fact, it’s so rare that it can’t be found by anyone except those in a tiny circle of Italian men and their canines companions. Armed with walking sticks, biting senses of humor, and dedicated dogs, these men look for the truffles at night, in order to leave no clues about their whereabouts. The mystery surrounding these truffles make them even more desired than others, a product the wealthiest patrons on the planet seek out.
The doc follows this unusual cycle from start to finish, from the discoveries on the forest floor, all the way to the plates of some of the finest restaurants in the land. While the focus is on the men, it also does work as a bit of food porn as well, if you like that sort of thing.
Watching these men (and dogs) go about their business is where the chief bits of charm come into play. The truffle itself isn’t especially interesting to look at, so it’s this small group, almost out of a bygone era, that makes for the main attraction. The more things focus on them, the more interesting the movie turns out to be.
Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw are clearly fascinated by the whole process, and it shows. They have a deep respect for the unearthing process, as well as a curiosity about those who pay top dollar for the truffle. Dweck and Kershaw hold too long on some monotonous scenes, but whenever they have the men chattering away to their dogs, they’re on more than solid ground.
The Truffle Hunters is a bit of a lark here at NYFF 58 (virtually here, at least), but it’s a nice change of pace, documentary-wise. If you’re at all curious about truffle hunting, or at least want to see some odd-balls seek them out, this is is something to give a look to.