“The Truffle Hunters”

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The Truffle Hunters (Sony Pictures Classics) is a charming, mysterious and beautiful film about a squad of venerable northern Italian men and their beloved dogs. Together they hunt one of the most coveted culinary delicacies in the world: the delicious white Alba truffle, which is coveted and coveted by gourmets all over the world. The film is also a study of the sweet love that exists between these men and their dogs as they work together on a shared mission.

The coveted Alba truffle is found deep in the forests of northwest Italy in a region known as Piedmont. Sharp but rare secrets cannot be cultivated and are extremely difficult to locate in their natural habitat. This tiny circle of dogs and their older human companions are among the few who know how and where to spot them.

To protect their techniques and hunting areas, pairs of men and dogs regularly search the forest floor at night so as not to leave clues for others. Every man has a hunting ground to which he faithfully returns and which he keeps secret from everyone. The men do not share any information about their findings with one another or with friends, family, or even their priests. In one scene, an 84-year-old truffle hunter is persuaded by a much younger man who tries (unsuccessfully) to get him to reveal his secrets and favorite hunting grounds. When the frustrated younger man declares, “All your secrets will vanish when you die!” It becomes clear that what we are observing is the end of a certain way of life.

Anyone looking for a tutorial or a full study of this amazing activity – equal parts sports, hobbies, agricultural harvesting, and secret society treasure hunting – should look elsewhere (Wikipedia and YouTube are two sources for the basics). This is not your typical Ken Burns or Discovery Channel documentation. There is no historical overview, no cast introductions or narrative voice-over instructions. If this is your preference then you may be disappointed.

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But you would do well to understand what this wonderful movie is rather than looking for what it is not. It is a warm portrait of truffle hunters and their dogs: an exquisitely photographed film, the scene of which resembles a Renaissance painting. The old buildings, snow-covered fields, rolling farmland, and lush forest are photographed like stills, often with available light, giving the film a warm and intimate glow.

This documentary has no traditional narrative; it just watches. There is a point of view, however, and the filmmakers grasp both the eccentricity of their characters and the quirk of the subject.

With unparalleled access to the lives and activities of the secret truffle hunters, filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (The Last Race, 2018) follow the cycle from forest floor to restaurant plate. Viewers get a glimpse of the truffle trade, sales to wholesalers and restaurants, shops in the shade, and high-priced auctions – places far removed from the world of humble truffle hunters in both atmosphere and price.

The most exciting moments of the film are the scenes of the hunt: man and dog scurry through the forest, dog sniffing the ground, digging excitedly when it catches a smell, finds an elusive truffle. The dogs clearly love the activity, and their yowling and furious digging will be familiar to anyone who has seen the primal pleasure dogs show in uncovering their own buried treasures.

Left: Fiona (dog), Sergio Cauda in THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS

Also of note are some quiet domestic scenes in which the men interact with their dogs. Aurelio’s chatter with his dog Birba is particularly touching. He taps on Birba like a proud mother, encourages her to jump on the table to share his meal, and celebrates a birthday with cake and candles.

It is heartbreaking to hear how money and greed dominate today’s truffle hunt, leading to aggressive competitive tactics – including dog poisoning – to enforce the territorial domain. [Spoiler alert: One such poisoning occurs off-screen but is discussed by the anguished dog owner.] While it bothers you, it shouldn’t prevent you from looking at it. The truffle hunters are a poetic homage to an artful tradition and to the men and dogs who chase this elusive underground mushroom.

The Truffle Hunters will open in LA and NY theaters on March 5, followed by a gradual expansion across the country. The streaming date has not yet been announced.