Leisurely and engaging, this documentary about elderly men and their dogs searching for truffles in Northern Italy serves up a rich and substantial cinematic meal.
By Sarah Ward
Sometimes they're shaved and sprinkled atop pasta, risotto or eggs. Sometimes they're used to flavour cheese. To the joy of libation lovers, they've also been worked into creative types of cocktails. The foodstuff in question: truffles. A king among culinary must-haves, they don't just tantalise tastebuds every time they're mentioned, but get snapped with such frequency that they fill up social media feeds the way they fill up stomachs. Northern Italy's woods are also abundant with them, especially the tuber magnatum — otherwise known as the white truffle. But before these highly sought-after morsels can make their way into kitchens, onto plates, and into many a willing and eager mouth, someone has to spend their time and expend their energy finding the edible fungus.
The Truffle Hunters introduces viewers to multiple elderly men and their adorable dogs who all do just that, with their lives revolving around roving the forest and searching out the prized food. It might sound like a relaxed pursuit — as walking through trees with your pet pooch to fill your pockets with a delicacy is bound to — but it's a highly competitive endeavour, and one that the documentary's central figures are intensely passionate about. For Aurelio, the only thing he loves more than foraging for truffles is Birba, his partner in the hunt. Alas, he worries that when his days are over, there'll be no one to care for his adored canine companion. The cantankerous Angelo has no such concerns, but he does have a plethora of gripes. Now an ex-truffle hunter disillusioned with the way that the industry has evolved over time, he's happiest when he's attacking his typewriter with gusto, using it to chronicle his myriad woes and complaints.
In earning the film's attention, these two very different men are joined by the committed Sergio, who enjoys his task with his dogs Pepe and Fiona by his side — and by Carlo, who takes his walks with his own four-legged companion Titina. The latter duo are the source of some of The Truffle Hunters' most memorable scenes, with Carlo's beloved pastime forbidden by his wife. Unperturbed, he routinely sneaks out at night to search with a torch in hand. Cycling between these men's stories, directors Michael Dweck (The Last Race) and Gregory Kershaw (cinematographer on The Last Race, and also on this) chart their individual efforts. The titular subjects try care for their canines, argue with others encroaching on their turf, type missives about how the world has changed and, in Carlo's case, keep absconding by moonlight. Their hounds remain a focus, including their efforts to avoid poison baits. Devoted to capturing the pooch perspective however they can, Dweck and Kershaw aren't above using puppy cam as well.
Seeing truffle hunting from a dog's viewpoint may be an easy gimmick, but it's also both a joy and a thrill — and emblematic of the film's fondness for flavour and character above all else. Narration is absent, talking heads don't clog up the screen, and no one is on hand to describe the ins and outs of the business in the spotlight, with Dweck and Kershaw favouring immersion rather than explanation. It's a fitting approach, and a purposeful one, even if the documentary takes on a relaxed air from start to finish. The Truffle Hunters is a leisurely movie that's content to chronicle its subjects' easy-going lives, lean into their eccentricities and survey their lush surroundings — and, even clocking in at just 84 minutes, it's an unhurried gem of a documentary — however, it's also carefully compiled.
Truffle aficionados will spot the symbolism, of course. When chefs whip up bites to eat using the fungi, they enhance the charms of a raw ingredient by weaving it into a painstakingly crafted dish — and The Truffle Hunters does the filmmaking equivalent. When working in the kitchen and making a movie alike, it takes skill and precision to bring out the best in something, while also simultaneously arranging it in an exacting fashion. If Dweck and Kershaw happen to be as adept at cooking as they are at directing, they'd make exceptional chefs indeed.
The pair's efforts behind the camera are certainly enough to whet appetites; shots of truffles being grated over plates will do that. That said, The Truffle Hunters doesn't ever earn the culinary documentary genre's least-wanted term, because no one here is interested in making mere food porn. Instead, this sumptuously and patiently lensed affair is a record and a musing. It details a way of life, and the men behind it, that's likely to wane. To place that foreseeable change in context, it shows how everything surrounding truffles is becoming an ever-lucrative business. In the process, it also ponders the way that traditions fade — when the number of people keeping them alive continues to decline, and also when profit becomes a heftier source of motivation for those taking over. As these elements swirl through the documentary — which also boasts Call Me By Your Name filmmaker Luca Guadagnino as its executive producer — it serves up a rich and substantial cinematic meal.