In the early morning, amidst the forests of Northern Italy, under gray skies and the fog of a day beginning, there unfolds the work of a handful of men and their trusted hounds, scouring the countryside with their expert noses (literally) in search of one thing and one thing only: Il tartufo. The Truffle Hunters is a documentary chronicling the work of the men and women involved in what might seem a niche industry, but in telling these stories becomes emblematic of unwavering tradition, one’s relationship with time, and a deeper appreciation of work, food, and life itself.
Not bad for some little fungus, huh?
The Truffle Hunters
Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw
Release Date: March 12, 2021
A rare and fragrant delicacy, the truffle is a versatile component of quality dishes, but one of Earthy origins. “They’re good with eggs and on anchovies and garlic,” muses the 87-year-old truffle hunter Carlo as he has his hair trimmed. “If you’re not picky you can eat them with anything.” Carlo, a legend in his field, is one of several hunters the film follows. He and his trusty sniffer-dog Titina are a part of The Truffle Hunters‘ multi-faceted examination of what goes into an industry like this, procuring some of nature’s scarcest and most valued treats.
What The Truffle Hunters does with its various subjects — Carlo in the woods, Gianfranco buying and selling from the gatherers, the wealthy restauranteur, and their clientele — is give a sense of scale to an industry nearly all audiences were completely unaware of before sitting for the film. Sure, if the prospect of gathering luxury fungus occurred to you you’d probably think “Well, someone does it…” but in showing the picking, to the selling, to the exhibition, The Truffle Hunters, in a tasteful, show-don’t-tell manner, illuminates and educates in the way that a documentary of this kind should. It invites us into a world totally foreign, and manages to be a learning experience as well as a cinematic one; directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw alternate between footage of rough-and-tumble gathering and stoic, static encapsulations of the beautifully barren Piedmont region.
A film whose quiet matches its subjects, The Truffle Hunters sets its ambitions only as high as they need be, yet still manages to squeeze in moments of drama or warmth. Tension over the turf scoured by the hunters is the sort of squabble one gets into in this business, while the ubiquitous hounds that do much of the heavy-lifting (or rather, heavy-sniffing) in the search should please any dog-lovers. The bond shared between these men and their canines cannot be stressed enough, as they talk to them and feed them, even sharing a bathtub. It’s sweet without being saccharine.
It might seem hyperbolic to say so, but in bringing to the screen this detail-oriented, niche lifestyle, The Truffle Hunters exudes a quiet and much-needed passion for life and all of its simple pleasures. Carlo’s longing to keep up with his work and refusal to divulge his treasured grounds for prime truffle-tracking paints the portrait of a man who’s work has enriched his nearly nine decades of life, his toil in turn the fruit of others’ enjoyment. It doesn’t show too much actual preparation of cuisine, but imagine the great chefs and beautifully-presented restaurants at which these truffles find homes, and the appreciation for food and this culture might be felt upon the arrival of a poached egg with some sea salt and truffle shavings garnished atop. As an American, where I’m surrounded by fast, fast, fast food and processed this-or-that, The Truffle Hunters exudes what I can only describe as a “very European” appreciation for cuisine, and the craftsmanship that goes into it at its earliest stage.
I’d stress that The Truffle Hunters isn’t particularly a life-changing experience–not that it ever proclaims nor needs to be so. Across its 80-some minutes we follow its characters through some moments of genuine sadness and melancholy, and in doing so makes itself all the more human and relatable. There are no grandiose beats of triumph, necessarily, but as a document of a lifestyle, to seek conventional narrative highs would sort of betray the point of The Truffle Hunters. It’s a quiet little film about a quiet lifestyle; perfect in its own way, perhaps.