The Truffle Hunters

The Truffle Hunters ostensibly is a documentary about several (very) old men who look for the rare white truffle in the Piedmont region of northern Italy.  Every scene is framed and captured with the skill of Italian Master.  The movie is not your typical documentary, however.  It does not explain why truffles grow where they do, or how the truffle hunters find them.  Those are trade secrets that the hunters will take with them to the grave.  Instead, the movie is an affectionate  character study of the men whose profession remains untouched by time or technological progress.  And if you love dogs, this movie is a must-see.  Highly recommended.

The movie opens with a long shot of a hill.  The hill is filled with trees and vegetation, the bottom of which is mud.  (This is the first of several breathtaking shots of the countryside of Italy’s Piedmont Region.)  As the camera slowly zooms in, several figures become discernible: a man and several dogs.  As the man climbs through the underbrush, dogs scamper up and down the hillside, their tails wagging all the while.  At ground level, a dog frantically digs up the ground, mud flying.  His owner gradually takes over the process, carefully scooping away at the mud until he gently removes an off-white growth from the dirt.

The man then leads his dogs back to his jeep, singing happily along the way.  There is as much mud on the inside of the jeep as there is on the outside.  Back home, the man shares a bath with one of his dogs, giving him a deep clean.  His dogs are his only companions, a trait he shares with the other men featured in this film save one.  (That one tolerates his wife in between treks into the woods with his dog.)  That evening, the man wails away at his drums under stage lights, and he’s quite good.  I wondered if he played in a rock band at some point, then gave it up when he fell under the spell of the truffle hunting lifestyle.

The Truffle Hunters is a documentary, but I would classify it more as a character study.  I would put it in the category of the films by Errol Morris, where the point is to learn about people you would otherwise never meet.  Unlike Errol Morris’ work, though, there are no directorial flourishes to distract from the subject matter at hand.  (None of the subjects interviewed are placed in front of white backgrounds and under bright lights.)  Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw are respectful of their subjects, both the men and their dogs, abstaining from directorial parlor tricks except for one instance where a dog is fitted with a GoPro.  It’s an exhilarating and hilarious scene, giving us a feeling of what life is like for a dog on the hunt for a truffle.

The movie follows and interviews three truffle hunters and one who has retired from the profession.  (His name is Angelo, and I’ll get to him later).  All of the men are white and in their seventies or eighties, and clearly prefer the company of their dogs over people.  They live modestly, the results of their labor just enough to keep a roof over their heads.  They guard the secrets of their profession with a steadfastness that would make Interpol proud, never giving into pressure to reveal them.  In one scene, a truffle buyer uses a friendly lunch as a pretense to convince eighty year-old Aurelio to tell him where his forest is located.  The buyer reminds Aurelio that he is getting on in years.  If Aurelio dies, the whereabouts of his forest will be lost forever, the buyer pleads.  Aurelio adamantly declines, stating that he will take the young man truffle hunting anywhere but his own secret location.  But what about tradition, the young man asks?  If you had a son, wouldn’t you teach him to hunt in your secret forest?  In no uncertain terms, Aurelio says “No!”

Classifying these men as eccentrics or cranks would be simplistic and wrong.  They do forgo a modern lifestyle, eschewing technology of any kind.  Not once did I see any of them use a telephone, watch television or use a computer.  (One of them does listen to a radio at one point.)  Certainly one could collectively refer to these men as “weird” or “strange”, but I found the lives they’ve chosen to lead as enlightening, maybe even a bit inspiring.

The subjects of The Truffle Hunters are prime examples of how intimate humankind’s relationships with their pets can be.   At one point, Aurelio feeds his dog Birba from his own mouth.  He tells Birba that he will keep her healthy, feeding her one pair every day to keep the veterinarian away.  Aurelio says that he has never needed a wife, but he will look for someone he can bequeath his house to when he dies.  The stipulation being that she must promise to take care of his beloved Birba.

When we meet fellow truffle hunter Carlo, he’s at the doctor’s office.  One side of his face is bright red.  The doctor asks him what happened, and Carlo matter-of-factly tells him that he was truffle hunting at night and ran into a tree branch covered with burrs.  At eighty-eight (or is it eighty-seven?), he shows no signs of slowing down, even though the doctor’s examination seems to reveal that Carlo is going blind in one eye.  Later in the movie, his wife reminds him that he has his pension, and has no need to hunt truffles anymore.  He should stay home more, so she can take care of him.  I believe Carlo loves his wife, but he has no intention of hanging around their house every day, washing tomatoes and loading grapes into a press.  When she asks why he hunts at night, he says he likes to hear the owls in the forest.  At the end of the movie, we see him slipping out of the window in the dead of night, armed with a flashlight, heading off into the woods with his Titina.

Certainly any of the men featured in the movie could earn a better living doing anything other than truffle hunting.  Simply put, they hunt for truffles because they enjoy it.  They suspect that they are selling their truffles on the cheap, but they aren’t overly concerned about it.  They hunt for truffles because they like being outdoors with their dogs.  There are very few professions that double as recreational activity.

The truffle hunters are relegated to selling their wares on the street under the cover of darkness.  The transactions shown in the movie reminded me of drug buys, with the seller showing his truffles to the buyer with car headlights illuminating their meeting.  The buyers offer a price for the truffles based on their weight in grams, and the seller must take the buyer’s word that he is getting a fair price.  (One complains to his buyer that since the EU forbids him from selling at the market, he has no idea what the going rate is for truffles.)

Since truffles are a rare commodity, selling them essentially in bulk only guarantees you sell all of them.  Individually, the best truffles command very high prices.  Restaurateurs display them under glass domes, in a way reminiscent of dessert items.  Truffles not purchased directly by restaurateurs are sold at auctions.  First, a professional truffle smeller determines which ones will be auctioned off.  Before the buyers arrive, several young women set the stage for the prize truffle.  They set out a red velvet pillow, carefully dust it and surround it with wine bottles.  The truffle is then placed on the pillow for the hopeful bidders to inspect.  They casually walk up to the truffle and smell it.  The truffle was smelled so many times between the time it was acquired until it was sold I wondered if it had any aroma left.

Documentaries often make the mistake of devoting most of their running time to people explaining things to us.  The Truffle Hunters is more subtle, preferring to show us people and places, instead of telling us directly what we need to know.  For example, instead of having a talking head tell us that the truffle hunters are being exploited, there is a scene of the truffle sniffer we saw earlier enjoying a dish of fried eggs topped with fresh truffle shavings at a very expensive restaurant.  Those truffle shavings were likely from a truffle that was included in a bulk purchase of 350 Euros.  I doubt that any of the truffle hunters in the movie could ever afford to eat at that restaurant.

Before watching The Truffle Hunters, all I knew about truffles was that they were a sort of morel, and that pigs were used to find them in France.  (Google tells me those are black truffles.)   I don’t think I’ve ever eaten an actual truffle.  Chocolate truffles, certainly.  After watching the movie, I can say I learned a few things about truffles particular to Italy (and are white), but the purpose of the movie was not to educate.  Sure, I know what they look like, how dogs are used in finding them, that they have a smell that some find irresistible, and that the best of them are auctioned off for far more that it cost to originally buy them.  But those tidbits are incidental to what the movie is actually about.

Several of the truffle hunters remark at how unscrupulous the younger generation are.  That they don’t respect the land and each other’s territory.  Angelo remarks how youngsters come onto his property and remove truffles and never ask for his permission.  “Why don’t they just come into my house and take food from my refrigerator?” he asks.  The drummer discusses with a fellow hunter how his younger rivals set out poisoned bait traps in the forest, to kill other men’s dogs.  In a later scene, the drummer’s jeep gets stuck on a muddy path.  He leaves his jeep in order to wench it out of the mud.  He lets his dog out so that it can do its business, and the dog never comes back.  The drummer sobs while he tells the police that his dog was poisoned, and it was the second one he’s lost.  “Dogs are innocent,” he says.  Unfortunately, the younger generation is only after money, and they don’t care about killing innocent dogs.  (The younger truffle hunters are never shown on screen.)

There were a couple of scenes that I thought were too good to be true.  For example, Maria telling Carlo over dinner to stop hunting truffles at night.  I was amazed that the two of them both agreed to have the camera capture their very personal argument.  Another example is the scene where Angelo writes a letter to the younger generation on an old typewriter about why he gave up truffle hunting.  Angelo’s proclamation quickly goes off the rails when he starts talking about how much clothing he needed to remove from a woman when he was young.  (The point being that modern women are too easy to access, apparently.)  Angelo is quite the character, though.  With his long, graying beard, cantankerous demeanor and crazy-eyed appearance, he looked like a frustrated beat poet.  He later tells a friend how he was wooed by several wealthy women when he was younger because they were fascinated by how he could walk on stilts.  Italy in the sixties or seventies was probably a crazy time, so I’ll take him at his word.

Most of the scenes in The Truffle Hunters are shot using a still camera and natural lighting.  This gives even the simplest of scenes the feeling that it was painted by one of the old Italian masters.  The cinematography of the Piedmont countryside is also remarkable.  With its rustic hills and mysterious forests, I can understand why the men chose truffle hunting and have held onto their careers as long as they can.  The place where they live and the profession of truffle hunting is probably the same as it did fifty years ago, untouched by time and progress.  We should all be so lucky as to have a job where we get to experience the beauty of nature every day.

The Truffle Hunters also features exemplary sound design.  The way the movie captures even the smallest sounds is amazing, bordering on sublime.  I saw the movie in a theater, and I doubt even the best home sound system could replicate the experience.  If you can see the movie in a theater, don’t leave when the credits start rolling.  Before the credits, Carlo ambles off to the forest.  After a minute or so, the sounds of the forest surround you, including the hoot of the owls Carlo loves so much.  For a moment, I felt like I was with Carlo, walking alongside him in the forest at night.  It was an unexpected treat, one I hope you get to experience yourself.

The Truffle Hunters is a celebration of the special relationship between a man, his dog, and nature.  For the truffle hunters, it’s a relationship that yields more than just an edible delicacy.  It’s about achieving harmony with the world around you, something that we all strive for but rarely achieve.  These old men have something to teach us, if we take the time to listen.

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