So many great documentaries of the past decade carry a whiff of sorrow and loss, a sense of ways of life passing into history, and traditions becoming extinct. Wild beekeeping in Eastern Europe. Sheep herding in America. And what will happen when Jiro stops dreaming of sushi?
In The Truffle Hunters, co-directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw dig deep into the world of truffle hunting, a potentially lucrative but also backbreaking job that seems to attract mostly septuagenarians and their seniors. The filmmakers’ previous doc was The Last Race, about the final stock car track in Long Island, and its 87-year-old owners.
It’s possible to cultivate truffles, but not easy. Since antiquity, the market has relied on obsessive hunter-gatherers and their faithful animal companions. The Truffle Hunters opens on a long, slow zoom into a hillside in the Italian region of Piedmont, where a man and his dog seeks what is technically the fruiting body of a subterranean ascomycete fungus, visually visually a lumpy clod, and gastronomically a delicacy that can be worth its weight in gold.
They’re a cranky bunch. One uses his old Olivetti typewriter to pound out screeds about how modernity sucks. Carlo, aged 88, is forever arguing with his wife, who wants him to retire. But my how they love their dogs. They bathe with them, share meals, and one flatly refuses to sell to a man who offers a blank cheque. When the would-be buyer presses the point, the truffle hunter counters with an offer to swap the dog for one of the man’s children.
The documentary doesn’t delve too far into the rarefied world of truffle auctions and consumption, though we do get a few scenes of fat cats enjoying a nibble, and of wine and red velvet cushions set up to showcase the victuals. This is where the soundtrack switches to Puccini.
But mostly this is an on-the-ground (and under the ground!) portrait of a group of men who practice an ancient way of life, simply and joyously. One scene finds two of them united in song, vocals and accordion perfectly out of time with one another, and neither giving a hoot.
It’s not certain who will take up the work when they’re gone, but they don’t seem troubled. Carlo, talking to a younger (i.e., fiftyish) hunter, refuses to give up the secrets of where he searches, and says he wouldn’t even pass the knowledge to his son, if he had one. “The best thing is to find a place that you couldn’t even imagine,” he says cryptically.
Later, talking to his priest (who also blesses his dog), he admits he can’t live forever but hopes to keep hunting in the next life. The priest agrees: “If you have been a good truffle hunter in your life, you’ll continue to be the truffle hunter par excellence.” Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The Truffle Hunters opens March 26 in Montreal, with other cities to follow.
4 stars out of 5