“The Truffle Hunters”

New documentary is a portrait of human-dog partnership.
By Cameron Woo, February 2021
Left to Right: Aurelio Conterno, Birba (dog) in THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS

Left to Right: Aurelio Conterno, Birba (dog) in THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS

The Truffle Hunters (Sony Pictures Classics) is a charming, mysterious and beautiful film about a cadre of venerable Northern Italian men and their beloved dogs. Together, they hunt one of the world’s most-prized culinary delicacies: the delectable white Alba truffle, coveted and desired by gourmands around the world. The film is also a study of the sweet love that exists between these men and their dogs as they work together towards a shared mission.

The prized Alba truffle is found deep in the forests of northwestern Italy, in a region known as the Piedmont. Pungent but rarified mysteries, they cannot be cultivated and are exceedingly difficult to locate in their natural habitat. This tiny circle of canines and their elderly human companions are among the few who know how and where to unearth them.

In order to protect their techniques and hunting locations, pairs of men and dogs regularly scour the forest floor at night so as not to leave clues for others. Each man has a hunting ground to which he returns faithfully and which he keeps secret from everyone. The men don’t share information about their finds among themselves, nor with friends or families or even their priests. In one scene, an 84-year-old truffle hunter is cajoled by a much younger man, who attempts (without success) to get him to reveal his secrets and favorite hunting grounds. When the frustrated younger man declares “All of your secrets will disappear when you die!” it becomes clear that what we are watching is the end of a particular way of life.

Those seeking a tutorial or comprehensive examination of this amazing activity—equal parts sport, hobby, agricultural harvest and secret-society treasure hunt—will need to look elsewhere (Wikipedia and YouTube are two sources for the basics). This is not your typical Ken Burns or Discovery Channel documentary. There is no historical overview, no cast introductions or narrative voiceover to guide you. If that is your preference, you may be disappointed.

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But you would do well to embrace what this wonderful film is, rather than pine for what it is not. It is a heartfelt portrait of truffle hunters and their dogs: an exquisitely photographed film, each scene framed akin to a Renaissance painting. The ancient buildings, the snow-covered fields, the rolling farmland, the lush forest are photographed like still portraits, often with available light, which gives the film a warm and intimate glow.

This documentary has no traditional narrative; it simply observes. Yet there is a point of view, and the filmmakers capture both the eccentricity of its cast of characters as well as the idiosyncrasy of the subject.

With unprecedented access to the lives and activities of the secretive truffle hunters, filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (The Last Race, 2018) follow the cycle from forest floor to restaurant plate. Viewers catch a glimpse of the truffle trade, sales to wholesalers and to restaurants, business transacted in the shadows as well as at high-priced auctions—places far removed in both atmosphere and price from the world of the truffles’ humble hunters.

The most exhilarating moments of the film are the scenes of the hunt: man and dog scurrying through the forest, dog sniffing the ground, digging excitedly when catching a scent, finding an elusive truffle. The dogs clearly love the activity, and their yelps and furious digging will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the primal pleasure dogs display in uncovering buried treasures of their own.

Left: Fiona (dog), Sergio Cauda in THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS

Also notable are several quiet domestic scenes in which the men interact with their dogs. Aurelio’s chatter with his dog Birba is particularly touching. He dotes over Birba like a proud mother, encouraging her to jump on the table to share his food and celebrating a birthday with cake and candles.

It is heart-wrenching to hear talk of the ways today’s truffle hunting has become ruled by money and greed, prompting aggressive competitive tactics—including poisoning dogs—to enforce territorial domain. [Spoiler alert: One such poisoning occurs off-screen but is discussed by the anguished dog owner.] Though upsetting, it should not dissuade you from viewing. The Truffle Hunters is a poetic tribute to an artful tradition, and to the men and dogs who pursue this elusive subterranean fungus.

The Truffle Hunters opens on March 5 in LA and NY theaters, followed by a gradual expansion around the country. The streaming date has not yet been announced. 

Image by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.