Marcella Hazan was a great expert on Italian cuisine, and I remember reading in her The Classic Italian Cook Book that farmers would forage for truffles with the help of their dogs, who would sniff out the precious mushrooms. She said that a farmer with a reliable dog would not sell the animal for any price. What’s clear from The Truffle Hunters, if you see it at one of the Tarrant County theaters where it opens this weekend, is that these dogs are more than just employees to their owners. They’re beloved friends, and that makes this as much a film about people and their pets as they are about the tartufi bianchi that are so prized by Italian food lovers around the world.
Filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw don’t provide any narration or interviews. They simply follow three different truffle hunters through the wet, mountainous forests of the Piedmont region of northern Italy. They don’t even give us the men’s names. Sergio Cauda, a relative youngster in this company who has his own drum kit outside his house, goes out with a whole pack of dogs. His 84-year-old colleague Aurelio Conterno only has a curly-haired dog named Birba. With no family, he refuses to tell anyone about the spots where he gathers truffles and declares that he wouldn’t even tell his children if he had any. Still, he frets about Birba and considers marrying a woman just so the dog will have a caretaker if his time comes. The film follows the mushrooms from the moment they’re dug up to the auction houses where elegant men speaking many languages negotiate their sale to the restaurants where the tasty fungi are shaved over eggs, pasta, rice, and meat. “If you’re not picky, you can eat them with almost anything,” says 88-year-old Carlo Gonella shortly before he takes his dog Titina to church to have her personally blessed by the priest.
Dweck and Kershaw don’t shy away from the unlovely side of this lucrative market, as stories make the rounds of farmers killing one another’s dogs. Indeed, Sergio loses a dog to a strychnine bait, a nasty death that’s tactfully kept offscreen. These tartufari complain about mushroom poachers and guard their territory jealously from one another, and brokers literally stand in back alleys to sell the truffles to restaurants. The filmmakers try to make a point about climate change, but the limitations they’ve placed on themselves don’t allow them to illustrate how this way of life is disappearing. (Compare Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which allowed its main subject to reflect on the seafood he could no longer find.) When Angelo Gagliardi, a man who wears berets and long gray hair and beard that makes him look like Leonardo da Vinci, sits down to type out an angry manifesto about why he’s quitting the truffle game, the movie makes him come off like a crank.
I saw this movie on my laptop, but it definitely needs the big screen. The directors, who are also the cinematographers on this project, produce breathtaking shots of the rolling Piedmontese hills. They also attach GoPro cameras to the dogs so that we see the countryside from their perspective, tracking fast and low over the uneven ground. The bits in the upscale venues pay dividends, too, with auction house employees placing truffles into wine glasses so that they can better smell the product’s aroma.
A more cynical person might say that the traditions of truffle hunting are unlikely to die out while the mushrooms fetch somewhere around $5,000 per pound. Yet what The Truffle Hunters makes clear is that its subjects aren’t about that. They make a living for themselves while spending large amounts of time outdoors with their dogs, and so much the better that diners from America to Russia find their mushrooms delicious. Carlo’s wife has forbidden him from hunting at night because she’s afraid of him being hurt in the darkness, but the last shot of the movie is of him clambering out his window in the wee hours and taking Titina for another trip into the forest. God grant me such sense of purpose — and flexibility — when I’m 88.
The Truffle Hunters
Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. Rated PG-13.