The white truffle, the gourmet’s prized subterranean fungal tuber, found among the roots of trees and selling for $250 an ounce (more in a restaurant), is the fetishized object in this documentary. But it’s the 70- and 80-plus-year-old truffle hunters, and their truffle-sniffing dogs, that are the show.
Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw wrote, directed and were the cinematographers for this unusual documentary that foregoes talking heads, voiceovers, and even identification of the principal characters. The two, an experienced team, let the hunters, man and dog alike, tell their own story as they hunt and interact, and, in the case of the humans, sell their wares and even write about their experiences.
The film opens with one of the five featured truffle hunters slashing through dense brush on a steep forest hillside in the northern Italian province of Piedmont, calling his dog, as we hear the intense sniffing of the animal. That a 70-plus-year-old can whack away at the brush with one hand—just to take a few steps—and use a walking stick with the other, demonstrates the passion of these men for their craft and its peculiar pleasures.
This is a film about the beauty and challenges of the natural world, a world far from commerce and yet awkwardly tied to it.
That opening scene also suggests that this is a film about the beauty and challenges of the natural world, a world far from commerce and yet awkwardly tied to it. A former truffle hunter (having forsaken the trade for ethical reasons), whacks away at a portable Olivetti typewriter while stoking a wood stove in a primitive cabin, railing against the greed that has crept into the business.
Truffle hunting old men and their beloved (and essential) dogs are not the only perspectives. Dweck and Kershaw sprinkle the film with enough other people to project a message somewhere between the subtle and the didactic. Among the characters playing themselves are an overweight, effete gourmand, who treats the hunters with disdain as he bargains down the price he’s willing to pay; a multi-lingual seller (“I can’t send you the aroma by phone,” he says as he sniffs a truffle next to the mouthpiece); younger men trying to wheedle the prime truffle locations, and purchase dogs, from the aging veterans; upper-class women learning how to sniff truffles from wine glasses; and long-legged young females prepping a truffle for an auction (at which it will sell for $100,000). In briefly showing these “others,” the directors evoke the opposite: a nostalgia for artisanship and relationships built on trust, for a world one must assume is fading away under capitalism, avarice and epicurean excess.
There’s a lesson in truffles as well. They can’t be too dirty, too flat, too dry, or have holes in them or be scratched by a furiously digging dog. And a lesson in truffle hunting: as practiced by these Italians, it’s a strenuous, dirty business, and often a worrisome activity, in which the hunter is constantly concerned about—and calling—his dog. (As a result, we learn more dog than people names.)
Dweck and Kershaw’s technique is to let everyone speak for himself—not to the camera, but mostly to his dog, with the exception of the one married 80-plus truffle hunter whose talks are with his wife; she wants him to quit before something happens to him and “others have to take care of us.” His response is to sneak out at night with his dog.
The cinematography is revealing and gorgeous; Dweck and Kershaw make even the dense forest undergrowth and treacherous mud (one vehicle needs to be winched out, by a truffle hunter alone with his dogs on a rainy night) seem luscious, and the rustic homes, the people, and the rolling countryside like medieval paintings.
The human and animal relationship dominates all else.
The human and animal relationship dominates all else, from the hunter who encourages Birba, his dog, to take slices of pear from his lips (“a pear a day keeps the veterinarian away”), to the one who bathes with, and lovingly washes, then blow-dries, his animal-hunting companion. These intimate scenes of man and dog capture a world that is being lost to modernity. The result is likely more a nostalgic vision of what was than an accurate description of today’s truffle business. It’s a lovely and valuable film nonetheless, full of its own truth. It could be said to be about death: about a dying breed of truffle hunters and the demise of a way of life.
Date: 2020 at Sundance, 2021 release to theaters in the United States
Availability: In theaters now; for future availability streaming, see JustWatch here.
Stars: 3 (out of 4)
Directors: Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw
Starring: Piero Botto, Sergio Cauda, Maria Cicciù, Aurelio Conterno, Enrico Crippa, Gianfranco Curti, Angelo Gagliardi, Egidio Gagliardi, Carlo Gondola, Carlo Gonella, Paolo Stacchini (all as themselves); plus dogs Birba, Titina, Fiona, Leo, and others
Other Awards: 5 wins and 18 nominations
Country: Italy, Greece, United States
Language: Italian (and dialect), subtitled in English
Runtime: 84 minutes