The Truffle Hunters, review: An exquisite documentary about old men and their dogs

The natural world of the truffle hunters is directly contrasted with the vast market they supply ★★★★★

By Francesca Steele

The true star of the show in this elegiac documentary is not the white Alba truffles – the prized gastronomic delicacy dug up from the dirt and then sold for thousands of euros a kilo – but the relationship between the old men and the dogs who find them.

The men bathe with their dogs, eat with them, unburden the secrets of their souls to them. The dogs curl up affectionately as their hair is blow-dried, they are fed truffle pasta and receive benedictions in church. “Dear Lord, may his sense of smell endure,” implores a priest.

Carlo, 88, ignores his wife’s pleas to take it easy and continues to venture out truffle-hunting at night with his blessed Titina. Aurelio, four years Carlo’s junior, promises earnestly to his young hound, Birba, that he will find someone to take care of her when he passes, and chuckles fondly that he has had no need of a wife because of her.

Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw have found the perfect eccentric subjects and delight in close-ups of wrinkled skin and old-fashioned shoes gliding across a dance hall floor. It is exquisitely filmed, with some shots as whimsically and improbably symmetrical as a Wes Anderson film, and others as drenched in light and dark as a Caravaggio painting. It is a tear-jerker riven with gentle comedy.

But joie de vivre is set against a growing melancholy as the old ways look set to pass. The ancient Piedmontese tradition of truffle hunting is at risk because of deforestation, aggressive rivals with a penchant for dog poison and a high-end truffle market pushing unfeasible demand.

Aurelio refuses to divulge his top truffle spots to the more commercially minded next generation. There is an odyssey awaiting the truffles that the men and their dogs have very little to do with.

A middle-man in a suit speaks French into a phone at a desk, describing the extraordinary aroma of the latest batch to a buyer. Well-dressed women sniff truffles at auction. Shady types exchange info about new crops furtively in dark alleyways. The natural world of the truffle hunters is directly contrasted with the vast market they supply.

Yet the abiding mood among the old guard is contentment. “I just love big tomatoes,” gushes Carlo, as he and his wife clean a gargantuan crop. This truly is la dolce vita. But can it last?

In cinemas.

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