Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS
PG-13, 84 minutes
THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS is the kind of documentary that makes you want to immediately retire and head for the removed Italian region of Piedmont (Piemonte) to live out your remaining years with the local truffle hunters and their dogs. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw have crafted an exquisite dish of a film about the endangered titular tradition. Utilizing inspired lighting references, clever camera techniques and superb sound design, it immerses us in their time-honored professional and personal lives, their hazards and humanity, their pain and profundity. It charms as much as it honors a changing landscape.
The art of hunting for white Alba truffles has been passed down from generation to generation. The truffles themselves are the stuff of legend, claimed in folklore to grow on the graves of gnomes – but they can actually be found by trained dogs with good sniffers, eight to ten inches under the dirt near oak trees. They’re best unearthed at night when their heavily perfumed scent is the strongest. The extremely rare and covetable delicacy can fetch upwards of 4,000 Euros on the auction market, which makes them a hot commodity. Even though there’s an unspoken code of conduct that’s been agreed upon between hunters, sellers and buyers, those men who’ve foraged the forests for fungi treasure are tight-lipped when it comes to where their special, secret goldmines are located.
Dweck and Kershaw let their story unfold through vignettes – cinematic windows into these elderly men’s daily lives and youthful spirits. They’re a unique set of colorful characters, to say the least. Carlo, the oldest of the cast, has been forbidden by his wife Maria from scavenging the forests at night after he returns with an injury. He’s not about to stop though, sneaking out like a rebellious teenager with his trusty four-legged companion Titina. Aurelio shuns marriage since he’s found his soulmate in his fur kid, Birba. He’s content that his prized information on where to find truffles will go to the grave with him, adamantly refusing to pass it along. Angelo is out of the business since he’s been privy to poachers on his truffle-rich private property, preferring to write poetry rather than dwelling on frustrations caused by ecological shifts and underhanded tactics. Sergio hunts daily with his two dogs, Pepe and Fiona, scaling mountainous terrain. The thrill of Team Sergio’s fruitful excavations is captured on Go Pros mounted on the pups’ harnesses. It’s a pleasure to see a wet snout protrude from the bottom of the frame.
The filmmakers also gently walk us through the process after the truffles are found. Literal back-alley deals are made buying from the local hunters. With the way the scene is lit (in the deeper recesses of night) and the sellers’ casual wheeling and dealing on a prized luxury good, it’s hard not to chuckle. One of the sellers struggles to maintain his clientele with their high demand on a low supply. We also see how truffles are presented at a market auction to potential high bidders. The scene where the authenticator savors truffles with a glass of red wine as opera blasts on the soundtrack is the most gloriously decadent scene in a movie this year.
A hearty amount of levity is also infused into the pomp and prestige. A Catholic priest blessing Carlo and Titina to have bountiful missions is bound to put a smile on your face. Sergio lets out his aggressions on his drum kit like a rock star on his makeshift stage overlooking the gorgeous countryside. The aesthetics are a cheeky clash between classicism and modernism. Angelo passionately pounds the keys of his typewriter, lamenting at the unruly acts of a younger generation. Finishing his low-fi version of a Twitter screed on millennials, he dramatically pronounces, “Now I’ll rest and drink wine!” And with that, he instantaneously solidifies himself a legend.
Aesthetically, this documentary is a true marvel. From the painterly style of the cinematography and framing compositions, to the lush soundscapes demarcating these men’s indoor and outdoor workspaces, the filmmakers find breathtaking beauty in simple texturing. There’s a softened, subtle delineation between the business side, where the lighting turns a smidge cooler in tone, and the personal, where the warm glow that comes from within the men’s souls is reflected in a saturated color scheme. Audio, conducted by sound designer Stephen Urata, is used brilliantly as a world-building tool. The humans’ homes feel all the more cozy and intimate. The doggie POV footage wouldn’t have as lasting an impact without the heightened sounds of their paws hurriedly stomping through and crunching dried leaves and twigs, ferociously sniffing and panting on their hunt.
Listen, if you were to hear the elevator pitch for this documentary, it might come off as privilege propaganda – panic-stricken posturing of “Oh no! Whatever will rich people do without their gourmet goods?!” – especially in a time where those lavish luxuries are unaffordable to most of the population. However, its nuanced themes and sentiments keep it from being that, speaking to universally affecting topics like ecology, empathy, and the entirely preventable extinction of a cultural tradition.
THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS played The New York Film Festival on October 5. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film on December 25.