Reviewed by Sarah Woodland
To describe The Truffle Hunters, by co-directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, as a documentary about truffle hunting is a bit like describing Moby Dick as a book about whale hunting. It is that and so much more.
Shot in the damp, mountainous beech forests of Piedmont, Northern Italy, this quirky, exquisite film delivers a peek into the lives of a handful of astonishingly sprightly, mostly octogenarian gentlemen who, together with their dogs, are responsible for sourcing some of the most expensive, highly sought-after truffles in the world. Alba white truffles are prized the world over because, unlike other varietals, they cannot be cultivated or grown in a laboratory. Modern day science has not yet cracked their code. The fact that they can only be found in certain locations which are kept a closely guarded secret by these elderly men – who, along with their much-loved dogs, have been perfecting the art of finding them all their lives – only adds to their rarity and the cult-like frenzy which surrounds them.
All this makes for a fascinating tale on its own. Yet it is just the tip of the iceberg. This film is also an ode to the natural world, to traditions, to community and to relationships – those between man and dog, between husband and wife and between the men themselves. And it is an insight into the delicate balance which is at the heart of all these things.
The film is a visual feast. Each scene is a perfect vignette; each one could be an Old Masters painting. To watch one of the central figures, Carlo, and his wife carry out their domestic rituals – washing tomatoes from their summer harvest and pressing grapes – all in a familiar silence borne of what is probably 60 years of marriage is a joy to witness. The colour-palette, the textures and the kookiness are all Wes Anderson-esque and downright enchanting.
That said, this is not a romantic, fairytale perspective of a charming, bucolic life. This film is not twee. Thanks in large part to a changing climate and drier soils, the truffles are becoming increasingly difficult to find and the hunters are paid a fraction of the price for which they are ultimately sold. And, in response to the skyrocketing prices, some of the newer breed of truffle hunters are becoming increasingly greedy and resorting to a variety of underhanded tactics. The film does not shy away from these tensions and the grief that sometimes results from them, but nor does it dwell on them. There are things we are left to wonder about and hope for and things left unanswered. There is a rhythm to this film that reflects the rhythm of life itself – the ups and downs and all the simple joys in between.
Whatever it is you usually do to reset, recharge and lift your spirits - be it going for a walk or a bike ride, playing a musical instrument or catching up with friends – I urge you to skip it just once and take yourself off to a cinema to see this film instead. In a mere 84 minutes it will have the same effect on you and more. Finally, it is worth noting that, much like truffle hunting itself, patience is rewarded for those who are prepared to stay for the credits and listen closely.