Truffles (not the chocolate kind) are the fruiting body of a type of fungus. That may not sound appetizing, but the fact is that truffles are highly valued in some quarters, and are super expensive if you buy them in a store or order them on a dish in a restaurant. Of course, you can always gather your own, if you live in the right part of the world and know what you are doing, and that’s exactly what the central characters in Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters do.
These truffle hunters, mostly elderly men assisted by their trained dogs, comb the woods of Italy’s Piedmont in search of the Alba white truffle, which grows underground and favors locations near the roots of hardwood trees. It’s the most sought-after of all varieties of truffle, and has resisted all attempts to cultivate it or reproduce its flavor artificially. Given the demand for white truffles, and the absence of substitutes, anyone who knows how to find this particular fungus in the wild is a fortunate soul. Not surprisingly, truffle hunters have their favorite hunting locations, knowledge of which they strive keep to themselves.
When we’re not in the woods with the truffle hunters and their dogs, Dweck and Kershaw show us some of the context of these men’s lives, and of the truffle trade. He takes us into the homes of the truffle hunters (simple but welcoming, with a bottle of wine always at the ready), to a magnificent church where one of the hunters gets his dog blessed, and to an impromptu vocal and accordion concert.
They also take us to a fancy restaurant whose owner, an earnest young man stressed out about acquiring sufficient truffles to keep his customers happy, and to a truffle buyer so focused on his work that he can recognize an individual truffle of unusable quality that he rejected the week before. The restaurant owner provides a little comic relief as he tries to persuade one of the hunters to reveal his secret hunting locations before he kicks the bucket, but no joy, as the older man is concerned that no one respects the old ways any more. The sad thing is that he’s right—the truffle supply is threated by climate change and deforestation, and unscrupulous hunters have been known to plant poison to do away with their rivals’ dogs.
The Truffle Hunters is a beautiful film to watch, and the forests of Piedmont may have never looked better than they do in Dweck and Kershaw’s cinematography. This film proceeds at a relaxed pace appropriate to its subject matter, and conveys a real sense of the locations and people featured. It provides an immersive experience, aided by the absence of narration, and Ed Cortes’ eclectic soundtrack is the perfect complement to the individualistic characters featured. Watching this film is something like taking a vacation to a place where everything is simpler and less stressful, and that’s no small thing as *pandemic travel restrictions stretch into their second year.
Of course, if you’re looking for a film with a lot of story and action, this one won’t be up your alley, but if you’d like to spend some relaxing in a world different from your own, it might be just the thing for you. The Truffle Hunters has already played at numerous international film festivals, including Sundance, and been nominated for awards by the American Society of Cinematographers and the International Documentary Association. | Sarah Boslaugh
*At least movie theatres are open again. Let the record show that this is the first review of a theatrical feature, as opposed to media viewed in one’s home, we’ve run since Oct. 16, 2020.