Synopsis: In the secret forests of Northern Italy, a dwindling group of joyful old men and their faithful dogs search for the world’s most expensive ingredient, the white Alba truffle. Their stories form a real-life fairy tale that celebrates human passion in a fragile land that seems forgotten in time.
Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw
Running Length: 84 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Let me state for the record that the variety of truffles that float my proverbial boat are of the chocolate variety that come displayed in a fancy box. I should also mention I have a serious aversion to mushrooms and/or edible fungi of every shape and size. Any way you slice it (literally) I’ve never warmed to the taste or texture of the much sought-after truffle which also can set you back a pretty penny if you want the good stuff. Even using truffle oil on fries, dusting popcorn with truffle powder, or sneaking it into macaroni and cheese hasn’t changed my stance – I’m just not dancing for joy (or even doing the, ahem, Truffle Shuffle) when I see the option available on a menu.
That’s why I could be forgiven for approaching the new documentary The Truffle Hunters sort of sideways and wincing a bit. An 84-minute documentary about a bunch of old Italians wandering the forests with their dogs foraging for the rare fungus? Is that what I wanted to find myself hip deep in and know I had only myself to blame because I knew quite well what I was taking on? Well, it turns out that fungus may be the focus, but it isn’t the whole story. Directors Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw take a hands-off approach to their narrative, presenting The Truffle Hunters as a series of loosely tied vignettes that weave together the lives of several men that have been taking to the woods for years in their tiny Italian town and making a meager living from their finds.
Of course, we wouldn’t be here discussing the film if it didn’t have some sort of hook to it and it’s because Dweck and Kershaw have curated such a disparate band of eccentrics that makes The Truffle Hunters well worth seeking out. There’s the tiny man that barely speaks a word who appears almost compelled to continue to search his favorite hot spots in the dead of night when his eyesight is the worst and he’s apt to injure himself. We understand his unspoken pull to keep moving while at the same time can side with his imposing wife that almost forcibly tries to make him stay indoors with her. Seeing the slow moving man by day become one that rather nimbly sneaks out of a window at night like a teenager meeting his girlfriend is quite a sight to behold.
More foragers include a man with many dogs that treats them like his children, taking great care and pride in their well-being by personally taking a bath with them and, in one tense scene, using a hair dryer while both are half submerged in the tub. He also tries to be as proactive as possible in protecting his dogs from dangerous rivals. Shockingly, while the professional business side of things is chillier in the way it undercuts the men doing the grunt work (black market/under the table suppliers buy truffles for a pittance from rural towns and then turn around and sell them for 300% more than they paid), there are fellow scavengers that stoop so low as to leave poison traps for dogs that assist their owners in finding the truffles.
A legendary truffle hunter is getting up there in age and has people often coming to ask him to pass along his secrets, but he refuses, preferring to converse with his devoted canine friend. At this point in his life, he worries more about where his beloved animal will go and if the family will use the dog skilled in the truffle trade for good. It’s this worry about the inherent greed that has grown in people which caused a physical and emotional burnout in another respected forager that spends most of the film sounding off on the state of the line of work today and lamenting loudly and forcefully why he won’t ever dig up another truffle.
I kept thinking the directors were going to wrap their film up with some foregone conclusions but the easy flow from moment to moment continues throughout and it creates a pleasant ambiance. Fully subtitled, it doesn’t always string together with perfect cohesion and there are times early on when you can’t tell a few of the men apart and even more occasions when you have the feeling you’d want to stick around a particular thread just a hair longer. It likely misses an opportunity to explore more of the showy side of the industry, often framing the high price selling of the fungus as an exercise solely of excess for the wealthy or refined. A little more context or big picture view of that side of the equation would have created more of a balance.
No matter, this is sweet little documentary that’s at times only peripherally about food that for once didn’t make me hungry. The scenery is routinely gorgeous, as is the camerawork in general in the town and around the forest. There’s even several sequence where the dogs were outfitted with cameras so we see the entire hunt from their perspective. As expected, the camera is shaky but not as hard to watch as you may think – it’s another way The Truffle Hunters sets itself apart from the other items on your cinematic menu.