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Old men and their dogs in The Truffle Hunters

This non-fiction film about truffle hunters and their furry assistants in Piedmont, Italy turns on the charm 

The Truffle Hunters is a charming slice of life account
The Truffle Hunters is a charming slice of life account

When a younger truffle hunter asks Aurelio to share his secret spots, the 84-year-old refuses and gives him a bit of advice. “You have to go with a dog,” he says. “A good dog or a bad dog—better with a good dog. If you don’t trust your dog, you shouldn’t go truffle hunting.” Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s 2020 documentary, The Truffle Hunters, looks at a handful of old men and their good dogs whose lives revolve around the edible subterranean fungi that can sell for as much as $1,500 (around 1.1 lakh) a pound.

In 1985, Italy banned the use of pigs to hunt truffles. Their place was taken by dogs, who had the advantage of not wanting to eat the truffle once they sniffed it out. The documentary is set in Italy’s picturesque Piedmont region, home to the legendary white truffle, or trifola d’Alba Madonna (Truffle of the Madonna from Alba). It introduces us to men who have been finding truffles all their lives. None of them seem to have children. Their filial bonds are with their dogs, who are part of—or their entire—family.

Also read: The patient revelations of Gianfranco Rosi

There’s Sergio, who gets into the tub to give his none-too-thrilled pooch a bath. There’s Aurelio, who shares a dinner table, and a bowl, with Birba—his primary concern is what will happen to her when he dies. Approached to sell her, Aurelio asks the man inquiring if he would sell him one of his children if he gave him ready cash. The dogs reciprocate this love, nudging their owners for a little attention when they are in conversation, throwing themselves body and soul into the task of ferreting out truffles.

The film opens on a wooded hillside. We gradually make out the three figures: two dogs darting around, and a man egging them on. Treasure is soon unearthed—an undistinguished, mud-covered lump maybe four inches in diameter. Later in the film, we are shown exactly how precious this is. The hunters sell to middlemen, who pass it on to restaurants and wealthy gourmands—one such transaction is for €4,500 ( 3.8 lakh) for a kilo. The social gap is yawning: The hunters are simply dressed, farmers (though well off); the suppliers wear suits and live in well-appointed houses. It’s telling that we never see the hunters eat the truffles they find, while both suppliers do (one does so in a ritual manner that tells us a lot about the cultural cache and the astronomical price of the fungi).

Dweck and Kershaw shot the film, along with writing, directing and producing it. The framing and use of light have a preciseness that’s in line with the codified, formal truffle trade. Still, there are moments when we feel the thrill of the hunt. The first arrives around 30 minutes in. We are in the car with Sergio and his dogs, heading to a promising spot. For the first time, the camera is shaky. The soundtrack is heavy with panting. It takes a few seconds to realise the camera is not handheld but dog-attached. Then we are out of the car, screaming through the brush and mud, driven by the scent. For a few seconds, it’s like we are in Leviathan, the deep-sea trawler film that made pathbreaking use of a GoPro camera.

The Truffle Hunters was filmed over three years. “We realised time was our friend,” Kershaw told Variety. “Somedays we would shoot, other days we shot nothing.” The formal beauty and immersion into a subculture bring to mind the films of Italian director Gianfranco Rosi. Though less political than Rosi's work, the film does argue for farming traditions, for the value of human experience, and for bonds with the land and its inhabitants in the face of corporate greed and apathy. The scenes with the hunters at home—making wine, playing the drums, celebrating their dog’s birthday—are contrasted with the faintly ridiculous details of a truffle “tasting” (though it’s actually smelling) and a fancy auction. Everything to do with the trade is slightly suspect. The hard-nosed auctioneer has the look and fastidious palate of a Bond villain. When a younger seller tries to push a few specimens to a customer in a dark alleyway, it’s as if a drug deal is taking place.

Also read: Varda, Keaton and the pleasures of the cinematic trifle

Though underscored with a slight sense of loss, this is a predominantly cheerful film of immense charm. It leans into the eccentricities of its aged protagonists —one belting out a tarantella, another angrily composing a letter on his typewriter. What’s never in doubt is their love for their canine companions. When Carlo is blessed in front of a congregation in church, standing next to him is his dog, Titina. The very game priest first blesses him, then says: “And may God preserve the dog’s sense of smell, which is precious and helps with the hunt.” Divine sanction for a good girl—who could ask for anything more?

The Truffle Hunters is on BookMyShow Stream.

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