by David Rooney
Co-directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw follow a shrinking handful of men and their dogs into the Piedmont forests in search of the prized white Alba truffle craved at the world's best tables.
The impression that The Truffle Hunters might be this year's Honeyland forms during the film's gorgeous opening sequence, as a lone man and his dogs make the arduous trek through rugged nature in search of gastronomical treasure. In this case, the place is the dense forests in the hills of Northern Italy's Piedmont region and the prized bounty is the pungent white Alba truffle, a culinary delicacy sought by high-end restaurants around the world.
Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (The Last Race) directed, produced and shot this captivating vérité documentary, which finds humor, charm and poignancy in the crusty eccentrics and their adored canine companions who sniff out the aromatic tubers, usually under the secretive cloak of night.
Watching a gourmet buyer reverently smell and taste a choice example of their finds, shaved over a simple fried egg to strains of Tosca, no less, will have you salivating. This is a fascinating glimpse inside a world of arcane knowledge and the luxury market that feeds off it, which should make the film a prime contender for nonfiction commercial breakout. The fact that it's foodie heaven won't hurt its profile, either.
Like Honeyland, The Truffle Hunters also suggests a melancholy sense of a disappearing way of life dating back to old-world Europe. The small number of men from rural village communities whose lifelong passion has been their ability to find the elusive fungus — which grows only in the wild among the roots of tall trees and can't be cultivated — appear to be dying out. And they remain reluctant to pass along their secrets in a sector increasingly ruled by greed.
While Dweck and Kershaw eschew conventional interviews for discreet observation, they pick up conversations — often in Piedmontese dialect — in which the men reveal the spiritual rewards of being out alone in the moonlit woods, communing with nature, hearing the hoots of owls, talking with their dogs and excavating their rare treasure. A lovely sequence in an ornate local church shows how seriously they take their trade, as a priest bestows an annual blessing on a hunter and his dog for the truffle season.
The competition from predatory dealers for the hunters' closely guarded turf is fierce, and there are incidents of their dogs being poisoned by encroachers, generating one of the film's more wrenching moments. One amusing wild-man character is so disgusted by the eagerness to commercialize truffle hunting that he refuses to continue the practice or allow it on his land, composing a floridly angry statement to that effect on his battered old Olivetti typewriter. The rules of the past, by most accounts, are no longer being respected.
Evidence of the detrimental effects of climate change on truffle availability also surfaces in talk of the dryer, warmer winter soil yielding fewer finds.
The cast of characters, the majority of them solitary types, is like something out of an absurdist comedy, and the lack of self-consciousness with which they reveal themselves indicates the complete trust established by the filmmakers.
Among many memorable vignettes, one man shares a bathtub with his dog while he shampoos and then blow-dries her fur; an octogenarian contemplating death patiently explains to his hound over their dinner table that he'll have to find someone else to look after her before he departs on the "lungo viaggio"; another old man, seen in a doctor's office after getting banged up by a tree branch in the dark, incorrigibly ignores the veto of his exasperated wife, who insists that his nocturnal forest excursions need to stop before he does himself serious harm. She seems more like a vexed mother than a spouse as she cries out "Carlo!" across the hills to summon him home at dusk.
Even the ingratiating wheeler-dealer who, like his father before him, has been purchasing truffles from these hunters for years to supply the lucrative international market (they are often sold at auction, placed on red velvet cushions like exquisite jewels) is an engaging figure in his slightly shady way. He uses the same line about setting a special price for friends, whether he's buying or selling.
Composer Ed Cortes' score, mixed in with Puccini and Italian period pop, has a jaunty vintage flavor that evokes 1960s commedia all'italiana, helping to coax out the sly humor in the subjects' philosophical worldviews.
But the film also is striking for its visual poetry and the painterly quality of its images. Dweck's background as a photographer seems evident in the dominant use of static shots, creating compositions both simple and beautiful, whether it's a couple eating dinner in their rustic home or a man and his dog trudging across a snowy landscape. The use of color is sumptuous, from the variegated shades of the forest to a table of ripe red tomatoes or baskets of succulent green grapes being poured into a barrel for winemaking. The movie is a constant feast for the eyes and a nourishment for the soul, giving the illusion of a journey back in time to a pre-technology age of simpler pleasures.
The Truffle Hunters also makes hilarious use of a device dubbed a "dog cam" in the end credits. Attached by a special harness to the dogs' heads, it accesses their particular eye view, from the excitable buildup as they wait in the back of the owner's vehicle before being released into the woods, then the zigzagging bolt through the undergrowth and the frenzied scratching in the earth as they pick up the enticing scent of tartufo bianco. It's a unique and delightful way to give these hardworking animals equal exposure, alongside their doting hunter masters.
Production companies: Go Gigi Go Productions, Bow and Arrow Pictures, Park Pictures, in association with Faliro House, Artemis Rising, Frenesy Film
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Directors-producers-directors of photography: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw
Executive producers: Luca Guadagnino, Lance Acord, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Jim and Susan Swartz, Regina K. Scully, Patty Quillin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Nion McEvoy, Leslie Berriman, Lynda Weinman, Cameron O’Reilly, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Sam Bisbee, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Jamie Wolf
Music: Ed Cortes
Editor: Charlotte Munch Bengtsen
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Sales: Submarine Entertainment