Film: The Truffle Hunters

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A scene from The Truffle Hunters. – courtesy Sony Pictures

“The Truffle Hunters” arrived at the MV Film Center for a week on Thursday, April 29. Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, this Oscar-nominated documentary, shown at the Sundance World Documentary competition, covers the arcane topic of white alba truffles, or fungi, and the elderly men who pursue them with their dogs. In case viewers are interested, the truffle is the ascomycete fungus delicacy and has a musky, garlicy aroma. The truffle grows among the roots of oak and hazelnut trees during the fall season

As important as the 80-year-old men who hunt them are their dogs, with the acute sense of smell that the men depend on to find this rare and valuable comestible. Rarely has a film shown as much affection between man and dog. 

Using a cinema verité, or fly-on-the-wall, approach, Dweck and Kershaw let the truffle hunters and buyers speak for themselves in English-captioned Italian. The images alone make this a worthwhile film. The camera, in a handsome long shot, begins by showing an elderly man climbing with his dogs up a forested hill in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy. Together they are on a hunt for this precious food that looks like small, lumpy rocks, and the dogs start uncovering them excitedly to find two of them for their masters.

Three of the hunters chat about truffles, with one of them describing how despite their pursuit having been forbidden, he still hunts once a week and has collected 200 grams of the rare food. For them it is not about money but the hunt and its goal. At 84, Aurelio Conterno (the truffle hunters are usually not identified during the film), with his beloved dog Birba, is considered the best truffle hunter. He is shown in a bathtub washing his dog, then blow drying him. One wife, Maria, having dinner with her husband Carlo Gonella, is concerned about his safety. “If something happens to you, it would be a disaster,” she says.

A number of scenes illustrate the negotiations of the truffle hunters with buyers, held at night in alleys as if they were drug deals. Another shows a man enjoying a meal with eggs and $50 worth of shaved truffles sprinkled on top. Each time the camera frames a single shot for a portrait.

A problem for hunters is the loss of truffles because of climate change and deforestation. Another of the challenges for them is the competitors who poison their dogs, and the film shows a hunter having his dog fitted with a muzzle for protection from poisoning.

In a picturesque scene set in a Catholic cathedral, a priest gives Carlo a blessing for him and his dog Titina. In another illustration of their daily life, a truffle hunter is shown with a doctor examining his face, which has been injured when he ran into a tree.

“The Truffle Hunters” is a film consisting of a series of beautiful shots and framings. For this alone it’s worth seeing.

Information and tickets for “The Truffle Hunters are available at mvfilmsociety.com

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