The Truffle Hunters — I sniff the movie gem of the year

How did a film about foraging for truffles hit cinematic gold, asks Kevin Maher

Last year, when the film-maker and producer Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) was interviewed about his latest pet project, a documentary on rural life in the mountain villages of Piedmont, northern Italy, he said that the movie was “a companion piece to The Irishman”.

At the time it was presumed that Guadagnino’s tongue was firmly in cheek. The film, called The Truffle Hunters, after all, would not feature a single act of violence or computer-enhanced film stars, and instead would focus on the Piedmontese tradition of foraging with dogs every November for the elusive white Alba truffle.

Yet the finished film, which has since become an indie smash (winning the Directors Guild of America award for “outstanding achievement” in documentary) is indeed every inch a companion to, and a match for, Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic.

It’s about old men, protagonists in a secret community of truffle hunters, who closely guard their knowledge about woodland hotspots and who can snag serious cash payouts if their endeavours are successful (one white truffle eventually fetches $110,000 at auction).

Yet they are also fading figures wrestling with their mortality and finding themselves increasingly at odds with a world that has evolved beyond them. They are, in short, a private society that has, for centuries, remained hidden. Until now.

Enter the film’s American co-directors, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. The pair, after completing an arduous documentary about stock cars called The Last Race, took separate holidays (entirely coincidentally) to the village of Montecalvo, in Piedmont, in the summer of 2017, and were both intrigued to learn of the truffle-hunting traditions near by.

Ancient men, they were told, mostly octogenarians, climbed to remote parts of the mountain forests every autumn, often under cover of darkness, with only dogs for company, to tease from the ground the “white gold”.

The secrecy, the adventure, the big-money rewards? It seemed like the perfect material for a new documentary. There was just one problem — who’s going to entrust precious and hitherto undiscovered cultural traditions to a pair of flashy New York blow-ins?

The solution, Dweck says, was to move to the village of Alba at the end of that summer and to demonstrate their authenticity and genuine interest in the story by, well, not making a film. “We spent the first three months just going to the families and constantly having meals with them,” Dweck says. “Meals, wine and coffee. And sharing stories.

“We were in their lives without a camera, just sitting there and learning about them. And at some point they became like an extended family to us, and it became normal for us to come to lunch, and normal for us to be in the fields when they were farming. Only when we became part of their routines, and felt everything was right, did we even think about filming.”

Dweck and Kershaw shot and edited for nearly three years and moulded their material around the 84-year-old bachelor and ace truffle hunter Aurelio Conterno and his beloved hound Birba, and 88-year-old Carlo Gonella, who is regularly harried by his wife, Maria.

There are, meanwhile, cutaways to truffle agents, truffle judges and truffle auctions, and the sense of a whirling, impatient, cash-rich industry pressing in from all sides, demanding more, bigger, sooner, faster.

However, the film’s heart is clearly in these tiny villages where time appears to have stopped somewhere in the mid-20th century, and, Kershaw says, “where people are not glued to smartphones and aren’t using laptop computers, and they don’t go home and check their social media every night. Instead they have a community of people with whom they play cards in the village.”

Dweck adds that there are salutary lessons to be learnt from the film and from the physically demanding lives led by Aurelio, Carlo and their peers. “During truffle season they walk 20km every night in complete darkness, on hills with this incline [does 70 degrees with his forearm].

“Carlo was 88 when we were filming and we struggled to keep up with him. And we never saw anybody taking medications or complaining about aches and pains. You give Aurelio a hug and, wow, this guy is ripped for a man in his eighties!”

The film looks extraordinary too and is the result, both directors say, of trying to capture the “storybook” feeling of a “fairytale” place. Each sequence thus unfolds as a static shot softly lit like an old Dutch master (although Dweck says that Titian was an influence). A scene with Maria by the window recalls Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, while a short sequence of Aurelio at lunch, with Birba munching from the tabletop, is a dead ringer for The Prayer Without End by Nicolaes Maes.

The film’s coup de cinema, however, is “doggie lens”, a mounted camera rig fitted around Birba’s snout and made to order by a local cobbler. This canine point-of-view shooting took two months and eight rigs to perfect (the early iterations kept falling off) and was designed by the directors to capture, they hoped, the best and most secretive truffle spots.

“But what we actually got surprised us and was far more intimate,” Dweck explains. Aurelio, alone with Birba and forgetting entirely about the minuscule camera, finally relaxes and confesses to her that he’s getting weaker, and can’t walk as fast, and that, someday soon, he’ll have to take a long trip.” He means death, of course, but the pain of it here, in a quiet moment between man and dog, is deeply moving.

Oscar-nominated Guadagnino joined the project midway into production after seeing some of the rushes and has been, the directors say, an invaluable support, offering editing notes and advice.

Yes, Dweck says, there are plenty of lessons available in the film about how disconnected we’ve become today from the land, history and tradition. But fundamentally, he says, this is not a preachy movie about the miserable reality of modern life. “We don’t want to teach the audience anything,” he says. “We just want them to experience some of the bliss that we felt when we were hanging out with these old guys, looking for truffles.”

The Truffle Hunters is in cinemas from July 9

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