By James Verniere
“THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS”
Rated PG-13. In Italian with subtitles. At the Landmark Kendall Square.
In “The Truffle Hunters,” a delightful, arcadian documentary shot in Northern Italy, we meet several elderly Piedmontese men renowned for their skills in tracking down and digging up a delicacy that is the fungoid equivalent of gold: the Alba white truffle. The film, which is replete with mist-shrouded, fairy-tale woods, opens with a shot of a dog loping across the side of a hill so steep it’s almost a cliff. An old man clings to the hill clutching branches as he and the dog make their way horizontally. It’s a death-defying shot and a metaphor for an old hunter who clings to life. Later another man, Aurelio, who is an 84-year-old bachelor, is asked if he will reveal his “secret spots” before he dies.
“Never,” he cries. He will take his truffle secrets to the grave. He is more concerned with finding someone who will take care of his beloved dog Birba, who shares his dinner table and his dinner. The man in the first scenes bathes with one of his dogs and blows it dry with a hairdryer. The truffle hunter also vigorously plays the drums and sings with his dogs in his muddy and battered truck. A couple of leafy sequences feature “dog-cam” (i.e., a camera attached to the head of a hunting dog).
Dealers sell to restaurants in Italy’s major cities and beyond and have lifelong relationships with these hunters. Some of the dealers are the sons of men who first bought from the hunters. Five hundred grams, a bit over one pound of truffles, can sell for 4,000-5,000 euros ($4,748-$5,935). One old man has given up truffle hunting, even on his own property, out of anger and spite because one of his dogs was poisoned by, he believes, another hunter. He despises the new generation of hunters, and claims they are greedy and murderous.
Carlo, who is 87, drives his wife crazy by going out hunting at nighttime. He was recently injured by a thorny branch in the dark. Carlo is such a revered figure in his community that he and his favorite dog Titina stand before the altar and are blessed in the neighborhood church by the priest. Firewood provides the heat in the houses of these truffle hunters, and all the hunters enjoy wine.
But the lure of the forests, even snow-covered ones, is irresistible to these devotees. They must go out and dig. Executive produced by Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”) and directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, “The Truffle Hunters” is not only a portrait of a rural European community in danger of extinction — it also teaches us the rules of the game. We see dealers bargaining fiercely in several scenes, and follow one truffle expert as he regally examines samples brought before him to evaluate, smelling their perfume and handling their flesh, and even better we watch him enjoy a dish of eggs with shaved truffle, savoring every morsel. The truffle festival boasts a melon-sized tuber that festival-goers one-by-one approach and bend over to sniff. In a magical, if also obviously staged final bit, the mischievous Carlo climbs out of a window and takes off with Titina into the night.
(“The Truffle Hunters” contains strong language.)