By Bob Strauss
“The Truffle Hunters” takes us to a part of the world where time appears to have stood still. But that’s deceptive. Men and nature alike have reached late stages in the rural districts of Piedmont, Italy, that this documentary gorgeously displays. Centuries-old ways of life are being affected by climate and social change. Love for dogs and doing just about anything for a good meal are among the few remaining constants.
Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s film — coming to Bay Area theaters on Friday, March 26 — puts us right into the grueling search for white Alba truffles, the region’s elusive and delicious fungus that’s defied cultivation and is prized by gourmets worldwide. Specially trained dogs sniff them out, and their masters, most of whom would be great-grandparents by now if they weren’t such scruffy bachelors, dig them up from the forest dirt.
It’s a tough life marked by steep hillsides to climb and muddy roads to trudge. But the practitioners love it: the thrill of the hunt, the secret skills and places they refuse to share with the world, and their (mostly) friendly competitors, getting dirty.
Carlo Gonella is one of the ones who can’t stop. He’s also the only hunter we meet who’s married. At 88, he still crawls out the window at night to head into the woods with his eager dog, Titina. His wife worries that he’ll conk his head on a low-hanging branch in the dark. Again.
Impressively bearded and long-haired Angelo Gagliardi, however, has given up the hunt at 78. Not due to its physical rigors, but because people these days plunder the forests, poison rivals’ dogs, don’t respect property, are only in it for the money. He’s a world-class “get off my lawn” crank, and listening to his endless complaints is a hoot.
Then there’s Aurelio Conterno, 84, who thinks his little dog, Birba, is better than any woman or child he could have had. They make for the film’s cutest couple, though Aurelio does worry about who will take care of her after he’s gone.
While these and other hunters are the heart of the film, Dweck and Kershaw also spent some of the three years they took making it with brokers, auctioneers, professional mushroom sniffers and other players in the pricey truffle economy. We get a pretty comprehensive look at how the business works, all of it appropriately from the ground up.
Most delightfully, “Truffle Hunters” gives us close simulations of what it’s like to get our nose in the ground, too. Someone worked up a camera rig for the dogs’ heads, so you can experience running after truffles just like a four-legged pro. It’s a rare piece of modern tech for a movie that, in many other instances, looks like it could have been made before cameras were invented.
“The Truffle Hunters”: Documentary. Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. (PG-13. 84 minutes.) In Bay Area theaters on Friday, March 26.