A story about dogs, truffles, and older men may not seem like an inherently cinematic concept. Yet in the hands of Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, the true story of men searching for delicious fungi in the woods of Italy sparks to life. The Truffle Hunters exudes the energy of fun, independent narrative comedies. Some of the characters would be at home in a Wes Anderson or Taika Waititi film. Yet the very real and secretive subculture makes for a fascinating subject. With questions of economic inequality, climate change, and the loss of a culture looming in the background, Dweck and Kershaw create a stunning portrait of the Italian truffle hunting community.
The Truffle Hunters opens with dogs and men climbing a hill to find the valuable truffles in the soil. In Piedmont, Italy, a rare and valuable truffle grows in the rich and unique soils. With attempts to cultivate the fungi that have proven unsuccessful, a group of older men supplies the world with this rich food. Yet many of the most knowledgable men are in the seventies and eighties, dealing with the converging problems that come with age and climate change. Dweck and Kershaw gain the trust of secretive men and bring their other-worldly culture into the spotlight.
One of the most prominent truffle hunters, an eighty-four-year-old Aurelio, receives offers for thousands of Euros to simply show off his locations. Without family or apprentices, his knowledge could be lost to time, including the areas he hunts for his valuable fungi. As young hunters and truffle dealers beg him to open up, he remains steadfast in his convictions. His secrets lie with his dog Birba, and he struggles to find her a good home for when he passes.
The Truffle Hunters revolves around men like Aurelio. Most are more concerned about the land and their dogs than the considerable money they can earn. Dweck and Kershaw have gained access into the fairy-tale setting, but never feel intrusive. Instead, their ethnographic study of the culture shines a light on losing a culture, in part because of its participant’s unwillingness to pass on their knowledge. Shadow figures on the fringes have no respect for the traditions, instead of focusing on the immense economic gain that is available in the industry.
These truffle hunters deal with unimaginable problems. Dogs are poisoned (thankfully, never shown on-screen), overfarming and “hunting” destroys the fruitful forests. One hunter who owns his own private forest must stop others from breaking into his land, even as he stopped hunting years ago. It’s a surprisingly cutthroat world, but when you see the money exchanging hands, it becomes a sad reality of the industry. Dweck and Kershaw depart the mud-soaked forests to the high-class world that buys the truffles. At auctions, the most expensive truffles go for tens of thousands of Euros. On the black market, they observe drug-deal like scenarios where thousands of dollars exchange hands.
Beyond the bizarre nature of the world they explore, Dweck and Kershaw expertly place their cameras. The cinematography shines, and they serve as the DPs on the feature. Like Honeyland last year, the use of light and the beautiful landscapes helps to elevate the story. The visuals make the world feel like a fairy-tale. When they turn to the haute-cuisine world in the cities, they wisely change up the style. The glitzy lights and dark alleys create their own visual splendor, and the shots are expertly framed. Perhaps the most jarring choice comes when a camera provides a dog’s POV. The dog in question runs and remains extremely active, but because it is distracted by the litany of senses they experience, the camera wildly shakes in every direction. The extremely fun shot might give you a headache, but the joy it creates is undeniable.
The Truffle Hunters blends its light-hearted subject matter with the very real problems facing the community. The bonds between the men and dogs will fill your heart with joy. It makes The Truffle Hunters a wildly entertaining film with heart. Yet a way of life is at stake in Italy. The secrecy of the community will likely lead to its disappearance in the years to come. The documentation of this culture was essential, and Dweck and Kershaw expertly capture it with their touching and loving film.