The Truffle Hunters

A portrait of the Piedmontese truffle hunters as dog-lovers and poets

The Truffle Hunters is categorized as a documentary, but every aspect of the film is as carefully calibrated as a painting by Johannes Vermeer. In the sole restaurant scene, a server delivers a plate of food to a diner. She half-whispers to him, “Fried eggs with fondue.” She returns a few seconds later with a white truffle, shaving thick curls of the prized fungus on top of bright yellow egg yolks. When she pauses to see if she’s shaved enough off, he reaches up to take it out of her hands. While he inhales the scent, opera music plays in the background. He returns it to her and digs in, stopping once to swallow some red wine. The camera lingers on his first few bites before he declares, softly, to himself, “I like it. Very good.” He may or may not have tears forming in the corners of his eyes.

This gourmand is a truffle expert, the equivalent of a sommelier in the truffle world—a trufflier? His response to a simple meal, elevated by the shavings, is the only indication the viewer has that the truffle is worth all the trouble it took to unearth it. Truffles themselves aren’t what catches the directors’ attention. They place their subjects in the center of every frame, foregrounding actors the way Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson does.

The 17th century Dutch painter’s way with light, and staging, also infuses every understated scene of domesticity in rural Italy. Co-directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw provide no background information about truffles, the region of Piedmont where they’re sought after and harvested or the names of the truffle hunters themselves. Their approach, even when the “characters” speak to each other, is imagistic.

They pose one truffle hunter in an attitude similar to the lone figure in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. Daylight recedes from the man’s darkened room. He sits in a chair on a tiled floor, a dog nestled against his knees. One can make out the worn straw color of his wide, wale corduroy trousers. He says nothing to the audience. We see a painting composed of celluloid, suffused with active particles of dusk and dying light.

This man is also a poet, with the requisite long, white beard and a broken Olivetti typewriter. He and the three or four other truffle hunters we meet grumble about their chosen profession in short, staccato scenes. They discuss changing attitudes in the truffle marketplace and the unique set of challenges they face. But first and foremost, they talk about their hunting dogs.

Each animal is the one true love of his master’s life. The filmmakers show one particular hunter holding extensive conversations with his dog, Birba. The man sings to his dog, eats with him at the dining room table and tenderly cuddles the dog like a child. We learn the name of one truffle hunter, Carlo, because the camera finds his wife regularly bellowing his name across the idyllic Piedmontese hillsides. Carlo, like Birba’s owner, is in his 80s. His wife wants him to call it quits, especially his rambles in the dark. But Carlo resists her pleading and, at their long dinner table, replies that he wants to hear the owl’s call in the midnight forest.

The truffle hunters that Dweck and Kershaw focus on are all poets in one way or another. Each is motivated by a love of the natural world and their home in the countryside. They have little to do with the commodification of truffles. The filmmakers intermittently interject scenes of an auction, where a truffle can sell for more than $200 per ounce. But again, there’s no talking head to explain the details of the truffle market. The Truffle Hunters retains an ecstatic air of mystery—the hunters lead pre-modern, nearly monastic lives—rather than adopting a pedagogic approach.

Near the end of the film, the camera finds a dog outside, scratching up against the wall of a house. The black shutters are wide open, even though it’s late. We hear insects and birds, the night’s chorus, and then a rustling sound like a bear moving through the underbrush. It’s Carlo; he’s sneaking out of his window to go on yet another hunt.

“The Truffle Hunters” is now playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, San Francisco.

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