It’s always a special moment in a restaurant, watching a server shave thin slices of an aromatic white truffle onto a plate of pasta or risotto. That addition, however, can add anywhere from $60 to $125 to the final check. If you’ve ever wondered where these strange looking tubers come from, and who finds them, The Truffle Hunters provides answers.
The documentary, directed and produced by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, follows a quirky group of octogenarians and their dogs as they wander the forests in Piedmont, Northern Italy, searching for truffles. We learn a lot about truffles, from the time they are found until they land on someone’s plate, but we are mesmerized by these elderly men and the endearing relationships they have with their dogs. While the thrill of the hunt is certainly a motivating factor, spending time with these furry partners seems just as important. In the end, the film is more about the men and their dogs than about the truffles.
The men seem to be friends and exchange pleasantries when they meet in the forest. But they are guarded, even paranoid, not sharing secrets about where they find their truffles. “You’re 84 years-old, no wife, no children. You’re the best truffle hunter,” a young man tells Aurelio, who is a legend along with his dog, Birba. “Can you tell me your secret spots? Can I go truffle hunting with you?” Quello mai! Quello mai! (Never! Never!) responds Aurelio. “But if something happens to you, your knowledge will be lost,” the young man persists. “It would be a disaster.” Aurelio is unmoved. “Worry about yourself and your family,” he says. “Don’t worry about me.”
What Aurelio does worry about, however, is who will take care of Birba after he’s gone. “I need to find someone who will love you and stay with you,” he tells Birba, cradling the dog’s face. A more immediate concern is that Birba, like any of the other well-trained dogs, will be poisoned by a nefarious faction that has begun to infiltrate the forests. One hunter arranges to have his dogs fitted with muzzles to prevent them from ingesting tainted meat. Despite that precaution, however, one of his dogs does die and he’s in tears telling a police officer what happened.
Another man (we never learn his name), distinguished by his long gray hair and beard, owns part of the forest rich with truffles, but no longer hunts. Sitting down at his ancient Olivetti typewriter, he takes a gulp of wine, then puffs on a cigarette. “I want to write down why I want to quit truffle hunting,” he says. With his dog, Nina, curled up on the floor, He notes, “There are too many greedy people. They don’t do it for fun or to play with their dogs or to spend some time in nature. They only want the money.”
And there’s lots of money to be made. Franco, the buyer, negotiates with the hunters, paying them a fraction of what the truffles will fetch when he sells them. The economic disparity is on display. The hunters live simply, while those who eventually buy and consume the truffles can afford to pay the price. We see one of the men who bought truffles at the market sit down to a plate of fried eggs with fondue. A server tops the dish with a generous portion of truffles. With opera music playing, he slowly eats, savoring each bite. “I like it. Very good,” he says.
For Carlo, 88 years young, nothing will stop him and his dog, Titina, from going out at night to find those truffles. His wife constantly berates him, afraid he will fall. He is injured when he walks into a branch and has to visit a doctor. But he’s soon back on the hunt, climbing out of a window while his wife sleeps. When a priest asks him what will happen when he dies, Carlo says that he hopes God will be on his side in the afterlife, but that he can also continue to do what he loves, hunting truffles.
Top: Aurelio with his dog, Birba.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
The Truffle Hunters screened at numerous festivals including Sundance, Telluride, TIFF, and NYFF and opened March 5 in theaters in New York via Sony Pictures Classics. It will open in theaters in the Washington, D.C. area on March 19.