Seek out ‘The Truffle Hunters’

“The Truffle Hunters” – Have you ever hunted for truffles?  It’s not that difficult.  Over the weekend, I strolled down a Trader Joe’s aisle and reached for a box of 16 Belgian truffles – an assortment of dark, milk, and white chocolates – sitting on an ordinary shelf about five feet off the ground.  The 7.05-ounce package cost about six dollars and was draped in decorative green and white wrapping paper because purchasing and devouring such a delicacy denotes a celebratory event, right?  Finding this particular sugary luxury burned about 10 seconds of my day, and I drove home with the coveted prize and several bags of groceries too.

Besides my grocery store item’s moniker, the aforementioned shopping experience has zero connection to directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s “The Truffle Hunters”, an oddball, minimalist documentary, one set a half-a-world away in the picturesque, rolling hills of Piedmont, Italy.  A place that may have the broad contours of Tuscany, but – weather-wise – it feels like Upstate New York or British Columbia.  Dweck, Kershaw, and their crew slog and trek through steep gradients, muddy roads, and leaf-littered forest floors with four local guides.  One fella is roughly 50 years old, while the others are in their 70s or 80s, as we are witnesses to their livelihoods and lifestyles.

They are truffle hunters.

Dweck and Kershaw don’t formally introduce these men, and their names don’t appear in block lettering at the bottom of the screen, except for Carlo’s, but that’s only due to random conversations through subtitles.  Otherwise, they are anonymous chaps.  In fact, you’ll become familiar with their dogs’ names – like Fiona, Birba, Titina, Pepe, and more – before this doc reveals theirs.

For about two-thirds of the film, the directors plop their cameras – anywhere from 5 to 20 meters from their subjects – and leave the lenses stationary in nature or at the huntsmens’ backyards or kitchens.  More specifically, these scenes are eye-level long shots, where our directors – seemingly – wish to capture our new gray-haired “amici” in their natural environments.

We observe from a distance, like in a Roy Andersson film (“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (2014), “About Endlessness” (2019)).

The doc chronicles this rare group of trackers during their current life stories over a few weeks or months, and just about every on-screen moment treads at a casual pace.  One hunter is retired.  The youngest one is serving at the peak of his powers, and the other two keep plugging away, albeit with slow strides. Three are bachelors, but Carlo, 87, is married.  His wife is pseudo-supportive but is dead-set against him hunting at night.  It’s too dangerous.  Still, Carlo insists on sneaking out in the evenings to search for the out-of-the-way nuggets, and hey, he enjoys that the resident owls provide some company.

What is truffle hunting exactly?

The gents – along with their trusty pooches – search for truffles, a type of fungus buried in the earth, like unmarked treasure chests all over the region.  The sacred substances look like mustard yellow clumps of Play-Doh, and to the untrained eye, they have no apparent real value unless one wanted to construct small clay molds of Homer Simpson or Sesame Street’s Bert.  That would be false, as these unremarkable masses can ring in thousands of Euros per kilo, and our elderly heroes know where many of the cherished X’s reside.

“The Truffle Hunters” drops us into this world of tradition and trade, and Dweck and Kershaw don’t explain anything at all.  Any learnings are absorbed through osmosis and observation as we try to play catch-up.  These guys – and at least two are Octogenarians – have all the answers but aren’t willing to hand over the Cliff Notes.

More importantly, the movie provides a cinematic Montessori-like lesson by frequently filming the four men during their downtimes too.  Dweck and Kershaw include several scenes with salespeople, brokers, and movers and shakers who bring the product to market.  The economics will surprise you!

So, sit back and enjoy this 77-minute educational experience and gratifying indulgence.  Afterward, look up  George Petras’ Mar. 16, 2019 “USA Today” article titled “Why are truffles so darned expensive?”  This wonderfully informative news story will capably respond to many of your questions from this eccentric on-screen wonder because if you’re like me, you’ll have them.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits:  Sony Pictures Classics

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