By Anita Katz
Opening Friday at the Embarcadero, “The Truffle Hunters” follows a few elderly Italian villagers who, assisted by their indispensable dogs, unearth blobs of valuable edible fungi from beneath the mossy forest floor in the middle of the night. This livelihood brings them little money but creates a sense of fulfillment and dignity. These feelings resonate with eccentric loveliness throughout this serio-whimsical documentary.
Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, collaborators on “The Last Race,” transport us to northern Italy’s Piedmont forests, the only place where the white Alba truffle, which can’t be cultivated, grows.
The bulbous mushroom cousins, which look like potato-crop rejects, cost more than gold.
Dweck and Kershaw cover various aspects of the Alba truffle trade, from four-star-restaurant dishes and high-end auctions to, on the low rung of the chain, the truffle-hunting oldsters.
The filmmakers spotlight four truffle hunters, presenting their traditional occupational and domestic worlds no hint of digital technology in vignette-like single-frame shots with a painterly (Caravaggio and Rembrandt were influences) and fairy-tale look.
Offsetting the stillness are impressively filmed scenes featuring the dogs in action during the truffle hunts. They run, sniff, and, when detecting a truffle, dig with excited paws.
Carlo, 88, accompanied by his dog, Titina, sneaks out of the house in the dark to prevent his wife, who has ordered him not to hunt at night, from catching him.
Aurelio, 84, says he needs no wife — his dog, Birba, is his companion. He shares his thoughts and truffly meals with Birba and is looking for a woman to care for her after he dies.
Angelo, 78, a former circus acrobat, has quit the hunt, due to the greed infecting the profession. On an old typewriter, he bangs out poetry and a declaration about what’s missing in life today.
Sergio, a 60-something youngster, plays the drums and worries about Fiona, his beloved pooch, because rival hunters have been poisoning dogs.
A primary theme is the men’s refusal to reveal their secret truffle spots to fellow hunters. Their secrecy could cause their cherished livelihood — already threatened by climate change and dirty-playing rivals — to vanish.
Featuring neither narration nor interviews, and presenting its title figures with immense admiration, the film contains little critical examination of its subject. Nobody explains why women seem nonexistent in the truffle-hunting trade, for example.
The single-frame shots, while beautiful, sometimes look too storybookish and painterly to jibe with the real-world challenges the truffle-hunting community is facing.
But this is a delightful documentary that celebrates humanity charmingly and creatively.
It reminds us how simple human connection is essential for happiness (and how canine connection can help, too). You may throw your cellphone out the window after viewing this movie.
It contains some fabulous documentary moments: a truffle buyer and a truffle seller meeting on a dark corner like figures in an espionage plot; Carlo looking elated when a priest tells him that he’ll still be hunting for truffles in the afterlife.
Dweck and Kershaw have put some contagiously positive spirit on the screen.
The Truffle Hunters
Starring: Carlo Gonella, Aurelio Conterno, Angelo Gagliardi, Sergio Cauda
Directed by: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes