Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s lovely, rueful and narration-free documentary The Truffle Hunters explores the pleasures and sadness of an old way of life. It’s a life that’s getting muscled out by big money. The film’s about the hunting of truffles, a precious fungus about the size and color of Yukon gold potatoes, rooted out of the floors of damp forests by dogs — in France, they used trained pigs to do the trick. In The Truffle Hunters the canine cast is credited, a roster of a half-dozen names. Dweck and Kershaw worked their way into small Piedmontese towns in the north of Italy. There, they meet seekers of the famous, and ridiculously expensive, white Alba truffles.
There is a certain amount of romance to the craft, among the old men who still do it — they’re more prospectors than gleaners, with eccentric personalities like the whiskery old sourdoughs in a Western movie. The good prices for truffles — up to $5,000 a kilo — attract bad actors, even to these remote north Italian villages. Poaching is common. Competitors sometimes leave strychnine bait traps to kill the hunting dogs of rivals.
What looks like a good country for old men is shadowed by the pressure that comes to leave this avocation. “If I fall, it’s my pain,” says the octogenarian Aurelio to his wife, as she tries to coax him out of a hunt that entails some moonlighting in the dark. He says he wants to hear the call of the owl. No married person can fail to anticipate the comeback: “You can listen to it here.”
Old Carlo is getting his dog blessed at church on St. Francis’ day. The priest, during the formalities, essentially explains the truffle hunters’ craft to God. (The priest later agrees that there might be truffles to dig in heaven, after Aurelio asks if it were true, “If God will be on our side, as they tell us.”)
A former hunter of the golden fungus is the poet and former acrobat Angelo — hairier than Rasputin, getting tipsy sitting at his Olivetti typewriter and trying to write a guide to young people to prepare them for the hunting life. This old fellow gets caught up in a detail about what a great endeavor it was for a man to undress a lady a half-century ago, with all the skirts and layers of petticoats to be negotiated. (It’s an old thought, that one; there’s a version of that idea in the female writer Isak Dinesen’s short story, “The Old Chevalier,” describing a mature Parisian blueblood and his one-night stand in the 1870s.)
Think of The Truffle Hunters, then, as a COVID-break, leisurely paced, and soothing; a walk in the woods to cure trauma, as per Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” The exteriors are inviting, with a snowfield undulating over the lines of vineyards. It’s pleasing to watch Aurelio and his unidentified wife dumping bushels of plump green grapes into their wine press, or to walk with one hunter yodeling opera. The interiors are mostly studies of conversations and arguments between people at tables, or men wandering with their dogs, entertaining the hounds with made-up-on-the-spot couplets.
Inevitably, The Truffle Hunters is sometimes a little vague when it matters. This is strange, because the directors have an excellent rapport going with a group that generally worries the most about being filmed — elderly small-townsmen. Certainly, they’re performing a bit for the camera. Just as certainly, they’re enjoying the life of hunting and finding and discursive talk. The film shares the old men’s worry about whether the spirit of the hunt can be properly passed on to the young. Early on we see a discussion between old Carlo and a young man who is trying to get his truffle-hunting grounds mapped before it’s too late. The elder hangs on to the secret, saying, “The best thing is to find a place you couldn’t imagine.”
But there’s a spot of a heavy hand in the comparison between these serene old countrymen and the truffle-factories who buy what they’ve unearthed. We watch a city woman scold a couple of presenters at an auction. She’s making sure that a small bowl of the truffles are seated on a pedestal of a red velvet cushion, making sure it’s perfectly centered between a pair of bottles of wine.
One of the brokers has his meal, spotless in suit and shiny tie. It’s a plate of shaved truffles over a plate of underdone eggs. He plucks a truffle from the hostess’s shaver, gives it a sniff and puts it back. In the background is a creaky old recording of the goodbye-to-everything aria E Lucevan le stelle from Tosca, performed by the long-gone Enrico Caruso.
Ninety years of cinematic tropes lead us to understand the scene only one way — here’s an overdressed, fastidious Italian diner, spooky opera playing, feasting on a severely pricy meal with intense concentration. How can moviegoers take this in without thinking of organized crime? We’re already prepared for the worst, watching clandestine meetings under tunnels, setting black market prices for the truffles; as well as a night meeting lit with car headlights in a steady rain.
The directors make a few dissonant choices — as in the reveal of the fate of a dog we’ve befriended that’s interrupted with a drum solo. In a sense, the dog even acted as an assistant cameraman, with a GoPro mounted on its collar as it rushed out into the forest to find the truffles. (There is a powerful film-watching lobby of people that will not, under any circumstances, watch a film if the dog doesn’t make it. They’re warned.)
These rare truffles can be found in America. Reporter Jake Swearingen in Modern Farmer mentioned that Oregon’s truffle sites are getting clawed up by meth heads seeking a fast buck. A real golden-goose slaughter it is, tearing up the tree roots where the truffles grow, digging the fungus immature while destroying the ground where they grow. They used to use the word “spoilers” to describe the kind of party who takes over and ruins things in some virgin territory; for its pleasures, The Truffle Hunters is a lament for those who don’t know what’s lost until it’s gone.