Film & TV

The Holy Allure of the Truffle

Aurelio Conterno in The Truffle Hunters. (Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw/Sony Pictures Classics)
An adorable new documentary looks at the strange fellows who hunt truffles and the dogs who love and work for them.

You will derive some sense of the value of truffles if you observe a group of men standing around discussing how to find them and hear one boast that he sometimes succeeds in digging up as much as 150 grams of them a week. But truffle hunting isn’t just harvesting a substance so sought-after that five ounces a week of it will keep the lights on in your hovel. It’s a vocation, an art, a life. One old fellow we encounter in the documentary The Truffle Hunters tentatively meets with a priest who informs him that, yes, there will be truffle hunting in heaven.

A slight, plotless, but beguiling documentary, The Truffle Hunters comprises a gallery of charming portraits of codgers searching for the magical places where truffles hide beneath the soil in the woods of the Piedmont region of Italy. You may notice that “grams,” a word frequently heard in the film, gradually starts to take on a more North American resonance. The strange truffle-centric culture resembles a gourmand version of a television drama about big-time drug dealers. As in The Wire, the pathetic grunts who work at the (literal) ground level barely get by (and those who do the most critical work of all — the dogs — get paid nothing). Grand middlemen in flashy clothes are the ones who seem to be getting rich from the truffle trade, and you know someone is dealing with a true kingpin when he is heard switching to another language on the phone: in this case it’s French, the language of haute cuisine, instead of Spanish. Men meet in dimly lit archways to haggle over prices, and there’s a classic let’s-meet-by-the-headlights-of-this-parked car tableau, familiar from many a chilling episode of Breaking Bad. Unreliable people make slippery statements like, “Make me a good offer and they’re yours. But I promised them to someone else.”

This stuff is as craved as high-grade Colombian marching powder. As in the markets for many other rare and valuable goods, certain codes and traditions have sprung up over the decades to maintain order in truffle-land, but longtime players of the game tend to grouse about how the new hotshots don’t respect the established ways of doing things, and there is a lot of anger directed at arrogant new competitors who muscle in on somebody else’s (actual) turf. There are dirty tricks and savage violence, too: jealous guarding of territory leads some men to plant poison to take out the dogs of their rivals.

Directed with a combination of delicate respect and dry humor by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, The Truffle Hunters is told mainly with stately gravitas, the camera for the most part sitting in placid stillness as the truffle-crazed men muse about their work and lavish loving attention on their four-footed best friends. In sudden dynamic interludes, though, kinesis takes over, via dog cams mounted on the hounds: Let’s hunt! From the canine point of view, dashing through the woods looking for places to dig is a real tail-wagger. (Also, it’s fun to see what it does to the cameras when the dogs shake the water off their bodies.)

The love between the men and their dogs is the sweetest aspect of the film; one elderly gent muses that he has no need of a woman because he’s got his dog, and we see another guy merrily taking a bath with his pooch. Others eat dinner with their dogs seated right on top of the table. On an altar in a magnificently decorated church, a priest gives a dual blessing to a man and his hound; a dog’s daddy celebrates a birthday by giving the animal a cake, complete with candles. A man in his eighties seems mainly to be worried about finding a suitable new papa for his canine companion.

As for the truffles, they’re holy relics that exist on some mystical plane separate from the glamourless lives of the men who gather them. One large specimen, displayed regally on a tray, is taken out for public delectation like a Renoir painting, and a crowd lines up for the privilege of taking a brief sniff. Toward the end of the film, one of the truffle hunters remarks that nobody he knows ever eats a truffle. But in a climactic moment, someone does actually ingest some of the eminent fungus. It is not the kind of thing you slather on your peanut-butter sandwich and scarf down while you’re watching the weather report, though.

We watch as one of the rich dealers prepares himself for what may as well be a religious rite. Dressed in a suit and tie, as if he’s going to church, with a glass of fine wine close at hand and opera playing somewhere in the background, he applies total focus to the moment. A woman comes over and solemnly shaves some truffles atop his eggs. In silent reverence he lifts the magnificent offering to his lips, takes it with deep satisfaction and pronounces his verdict: “I like it. Very good.” The angels sing.

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