Contributed by Paul D’Agostino
A few foragers gathered in a middle-grounded clearing in a forest, conversing casually as their dogs sniff and shuffle excitedly at their feet. A man in a tub in a cream-of-pink tiled bathroom scrubbing his soap-cloaked pup as he bathes himself. A lone walker in the distance traverses a whitened winterscape at the edge of a wood freshly veiled by a doily of snow. These are but a few of the many picturesquely envisioned shots in The Truffle Hunters (2021), directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw.
A portrait of a group of amiably hermetic, rather stubborn elderly trackers of the famously elusive White Alba Truffle, the film is worthy of multiple viewings for its moments of visual poetry alone. They’re nearly ceaseless, at times rapturous, even operatic. An old man at a table supping animatedly with his pup. A man and a woman walled in by a prodigious mound of redder-than-ripe-red tomatoes as they sort them. The blue shroud of the Virgin Mary in a small painting on a bedroom wall harmonizing with the blue of the white-floral-print wallpaper behind it – all of which is reflected in a mirror, in which a man is seen adjusting a necktie embellished, too, by thick stripes of that same hue of lustrous blue. An ostensibly simple yet elegantly plated repast adorned with generous curls of precious shavings. A rompingly rushy, stop-go-herky-jerky dash along a path in the woods as seen by a hound hot on the trail of the source of an evasive scent.
The film’s nuggettish, subterranean, dirt-sullied subjects of reverence, devotion, and impassioned pursuit, truffles are indeed very hard to come by. Not at all hard to come by, however, are instances of great beauty and grace in the lives of the Piedmontese hunters – human and canine alike – for whom truffle tracking is tantamount to an evidently lifelong raison d’être. As such, expect to find and delight in many of those beautiful moments. Conversely, don’t expect to finish your viewing sated with factoids and foodie-splanations by way of a documentary on culinary delicacies, truffle-crazed fanatics, inflated valuations, obscure recipes, and arcanely complementary mycorrhizal chemistries. True, you’ll visually savor a beatified meal or two – blessed, that is, by the trifola d’Alba Madonna, i.e. the Truffle of the White Madonna. And yes, the quirky workings of the truffle market factor in candidly here and there, as do the predicaments of competitiveness, secrecy, and deceit that arise ever more frequently among the hunters and their cohorts, buyers, and other intermediaries. But even when such matters lead to implications of sabotage with tragic consequences, Dweck and Kershaw handle the material with both a lightness of touch and a profound sense of humanity, situating the metaphorical weight of their commentary into a context that’s more broadly existential than microcosmically peculiar.
Still, The Truffle Hunters depicts the trackers and trappings of its small network of truffle trafficking with nuanced specificity, too. The individual hunters are sympathetic, even lovable characters, amusingly cantankerous and cartoonishly charismatic. In their world, preciousness and scarcity go hand in hand, as do tradition, refined expertise, rustic pragmatism, and principled ethics. The sense that the ways of their world might be on the wane is certainly heart-wrenching – implied not only by the age of several of the hunters, and by events and societal changes that unfold around them, but also by when and among whom they speak exclusively in Piedmontese dialect, which is far less spoken than, and vastly different from, standard Italian. Nonetheless, for some of the main characters, refusals to participate in a changing world, and to pass down generational secrets and tricks of the trade, suggest that some things might be better to let slip into oblivion so as to relocate, perhaps, one day, the magic and elation of their rediscovery.
In the meantime that would then, presumably, intervene, legends, allure, and mysteries would maintain. So, too, would the quotidian poetics of everyday life. Meanwhile, as for the secret trails and treasured details of truffle tracking, maybe only generations of dogs would remain in the know.
And on that note, in case you were wondering, yes, the wondrous dogs in The Truffle Hunters often do steal the show.
The Truffle Hunters, directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. Sony Pictures Classics, 2020. Theatrical ticketing only. Screening now in NYC at Film Forum.