By Cate Marquis
THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS opens with a camera slowly zooming in on a wooded hill side, with trees twinged with autumn colors as bird sounds filled the air. As we get closer, we see a dog, then two, and finally a man struggling up the steep hill. Their quarry? Truffles.
The poetic, idyllic start sets the tone for THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS, an enchanting, unnarrated documentary directed and photographed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, about older traditional Italian men who have spent their long lives in the forests with their dogs, hunting this culinary delicacy, It is also about the high prices this this fragrant and delicious fungi commands and the growing hunger of the world’s elite for truffles. But it is mostly an immersive descent into a fairy-tale world, a vanishing one of magical forests where dogs with their owners joyfully tramp those woods in search of a rare treasure.
The white Alba truffle, a fragrant fungi that is highly prized as a culinary delicacy, has resisted all efforts to cultivate it, and so must be sought in the wild. The rarity of this delicious fungi and the skill needed to find them are part of the high prices they command, along with growing international demand by restaurants and gourmands, and the shrinking supply of truffles. The white truffle only grows in a small area, mostly in Northern Italy, and including the Piedmont region of where this film was shot. They grow underground only at the foot of certain oak trees and only during certain months. Climate change, particularly drying, and deforestation has diminished the supply of the fungi, at the same time that increasing numbers of people are hunting them and demand for them keeps growing.
The forces of high-powered commerce and the traditions of the truffles hunters clash in this winning, contemplative documentary.
The traditional world of the truffle hunter is a secretive one, where hunters do not even tell their closest friends, even their children or wives, their secret hunting places, and where the dogs that help find them are prized and beloved. Those who live in the Midwest may see parallels to morel mushroom hunters, another fungi that is a highly-prized culinary treat that cannot be cultivated and only grows in certain spots, and whose hunters also jealously guard the locations of their favorite hunting spots and are not above misdirecting fellow mushroom hunters. However, all that is taken to a much higher level by the international demand and astronomical prices truffles command.
The photography is beautiful, and the film is a visual feast, with carefully-composed, painterly scenes taking us through the Piedmont forests, along with lovely images of the truffle hunters at home. The photographic techniques used, combined with the lack of narration, immerses us fully in this vanishing world. Long shots take in the full view of the forest, while interactions between people, or the truffle hunters and their dogs, are often static single shots that allow us to forget the camera and concentrate on people and conversations. In contrast, the scenes of truffle hunting itself are kinetic, as we follow the truffle hunters and their dogs through the woods. At one point, the directors put the camera on the dog, so we can see the hunt up close, at nose-level, which makes for a wild, invigorating experience.
Directors Dweck and Kershaw gave careful attention to sound design as well. Sometimes sounds even dominate over the images, with the ambient sounds of the forest, the snap of a twig or the crackle of a wood stove, foremost. The music helps set the mood too, mostly opera, folk tunes and Italian older popular tunes, plus some haunting original music composed by Ed Cortes
The documentary focuses on four highly skilled truffle hunters, all older men ranging in age from late 60s to late 80s, who hunt truffles according to age-old traditions. All live in small rural villages in the Piedmont area of Italy, and have lives steeped in tradition that seem frozen in time and apart from the modern world. The three oldest men seem to hunt more for the thrill, like sport fishing, than for the money, while the youngest of them seems more focused on truffle hunting as a livelihood, but all are committed to the traditions of the hunt and the joys of days in the field with their dogs.
Truffle hunting is a partnership between dog and hunter, and the bond these men share with their beloved dogs is part of the film’s charm. In some ways, the film is really more about dogs than truffles, and the passionate affection these men have for their dogs and their shared joy out in the woods.
Mischievous and secretive are good words for these unique men. Each is a charmingly eccentric personality in his own way, which makes the film fun as well as insightful. For some of the men, their closest bonds are with their beloved dogs. Funny, lively Aurelio, 84, has no wife and no children but dotes on his beloved dog Birba, whom he feeds from his own plate while he worries who will care for her when he is gone. 88-year-old Carlo has his beloved dog Titina, and despite the pleas of his wife Maria, sneaks out at night to go truffle hunting in the dark with his dog. Sergio, the youngest of the group at 68, goes out to his hunting spots in his beat-up old four-wheel drive truck and his four dogs, including Fiona, and returns home with truffles, singing along with Fiona, to play his drum set to relax. Long-legged, rail-thin Angelo, a poet and a one-time acrobat, is the most staunch traditionalist. A highly skilled truffle hunter who owns prime truffle hunting land and a prized dog, he insists he will no longer hunt truffles, outraged and disgusted over the way money has come to dominate over everything about truffle hunting, and the disregard for tradition.
The dogs are highly-trained, highly-prized, and much beloved. One truffle hunter rejects an offer to buy his dog, as if someone were trying to buy his child. A constant worry for all of them is the people who poison dogs, whether to reduce competition or to keep the truffle hunters off their land.
While the primary focus of the film is on these aging traditional truffle hunters, the film also gives a full picture of the world of truffles, includes the commercial side of truffle hunting. There are scenes with the men who buy the truffles and sell them to the every-growing, wealthy clients in the international market, and an auction for truffles that has parallels to an art or wine auction.
Touches of humor add to the documentary’s appeal, like one scene at an auction of large white truffles, where a string of potential buyers, or even just the curious, walk by and sniff the fragrant but lumpy truffle in the foreground. A truffle buyer/broker haggling with a truffle hunter, who is selling his finds on a deserted street in the dark of night, looks like a drug deal but adds a layer of insight on this hidden secretive world. Earlier, we saw the broker on the phone, under pressure as he tries to meet the demand for truffles from world leaders and other elites. In another scene, a man who judges truffles to set their price for auction, argues with truffle brokers about the value of their wares, rejecting truffles he deems inferior, and the same judge is later shown enjoying a plate of eggs over which a waiter has generously grated his truffle, a scene of pure culinary decadence.
The directors spent three years getting to know the people in this secretive, traditional world and that investment of time pays off, as the subjects are very relaxed in front of the camera, giving us great insight into this hidden world.
THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS is a magical, enchanting film that takes us inside an appealing but vanishing world of forests, age-old traditions, and dogs with their owners in pursuit of an elusive culinary treasure.
THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS opens Friday, April 16, at the Hi-Pointe Theater.
RATING: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars