Polygon is reporting from the remote edition of the annual New York Film Festival, bringing you first looks at the upcoming movies headed to theaters, streaming services, and awards season. This review came from a New York Film Festival screening.
Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters, the story of old men who hunt for Alba truffles in northern Italy, is a gentle and unassuming portrait of the profession. There are no talking heads, no recreations, no narration, none of the hallmarks we’ve come to associate with documentaries, and the fact that nothing playing out on screen has been staged takes a while to sink in. On top of that, the truffle hunters are so colorful that it seems nigh impossible that they would be real figures rather than characters pulled out of a Pixar movie.
Dweck and Kershaw’s subjects introduce themselves through the conversations they have with each other. As they chat with each other, with family members, and with their dogs in interactions caught by the camera, their respective personalities emerge. Sergio winds down by going wild on a drum set. Carlo has to sneak out of the house to hunt for truffles, as his wife no longer approves of the pursuit. And while every truffle hunter is devoted to his dog(s), as their canine companions are responsible for sniffing out truffles, Aurelio’s devotion has no equal; his dog Birba might as well be his only family. The two of them eat across from each other at the table, and in one of the film’s sweetest scenes, Aurelio ponders the future, telling Birba he will find a “wild woman” to take care of her when he’s gone.
Watching the men dote on their dogs and travel through the woods is a wonderful experience, but also tinted by the bittersweetness of knowing that, while truffle hunting may be a life’s calling for these men, the prizes they find in the ground are only dollar signs to everyone else. Truffle brokers buy the mushrooms for a few hundred Euros, always saying that they’re offering a good price, and then sell them for tens of thousands of Euros.
Angelo, one of the film’s other subjects, has quit truffle hunting entirely because of the degree to which greed has corrupted the field. The dealers are bad enough, but there are also hunters who become so territorial and so incapable of dealing with the idea of competition that they place poison traps in the woods to kill other hunters’ dogs. (Unfortunately, one dog does succumb during the film’s runtime.) Though a dealer comes to Angelo’s house to try to convince him to get back in the game, saying that he used to be one of the best, Angelo practically chases him off of his property. He’s been through too much to go back.
That sense of sadness persists as these men are faced with the reality that they are either growing too old to hunt safely or won’t have anyone to pass their craft down to. (The same dealer who tried to convince Angelo also tries to get Aurelio to spill where he goes hunting, emphasizing the fact that Angelo doesn’t have any children upon whom to impart his knowledge.) But, even though all things will eventually come to an end, these truffle hunters are clearly head over heels in love with the field that they’ve chosen.
As the filmmakers encounter truffle hunters and those who buy up their treasures, the footage speaks for itself. In the one moment the truffle dealer has to himself, he notes to his daughter that he himself never has time to enjoy the delicacies he’s peddling; he’s always on the clock. And the various men who rate and auction off the truffles, not to mention the people who then consume the mushrooms, are so hyper-aware of the price of what’s before them that the proceedings become almost clinical. But it’s the content that makes it feel that way — the camerawork, which is always just observant and never intrusive or flashy, doesn’t change.
By contrast, the act of truffle hunting,done purely for the joy of the sport by the doc’s subjects, feels like a breath of fresh air. These foragers love their dogs, and love spending time in nature, and their most pressing concerns include whether or not they’ll be able to hunt truffles in heaven. There’s a dark side to the profession, which the filmmakers acknowledge, but the most valuable thing they capture in their film is the joy of being alive, and finding something you love.
The Truffle Hunters will be released on Dec. 25.