Review: The Truffle Hunters (2020)

courtesy of Motovun Film Festival

Oh, the truffles… The precious fungi that cannot be grown on a farm or in a lab, but can only be picked from the ground after being sniffed out by dogs, pigs or maybe bears at the hunters’ favourite spots. But truffles are also an economy of its own, with the basic laws of that economy: the cult rises and with it prices, the earnings for those on the top of the chain also rise, but those on its bottom, the actual ‘hunters’, end up empty handed. Welcome to the dark and damp forests of Piedmont and to Michael Dweck’s and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters.

The film premiered before the corona-crisis, at last year’s Sundance, but it ended up in a lockdown of sorts until last autumn and Toronto. After that, it had a healthy tour around the world, both in physical and virtual form, securing a number of nominations and awards at the festivals and by certain film industry guilds. We finally caught it at Motovun, where it served as the opening film. It was no accident: the whole area of Istria, Croatia, and especially the Motovun Forest are one of the world’s most famous truffle-hunting grounds, making The Truffle Hunters a good choice for a festival opener.

The film itself opens at a dark forest, with a light between the night and day and with the striking sound design and musical score in the background. A man goes there hunting for the precious Alba truffles with a pack of his faithful dogs before bringing the catch to his old SUV. That man will turn out to be one of our protagonists in this observational documentary, the youngest of the bunch of the old and old school truffle hunters, and his character arc will be marked by the series of misfortunes, emphasizing on the fragility of the truffle-hunting business that depends pretty much on luck and is based upon semi-superstitious beliefs about the hunting places.

The second factor, as we learn it, are the dogs and our next protagonist, the ageing single man Carlo, explains his success by having a special bond with his canine helper, Birba. He even goes that far stating that he never married because hardly any woman would tolerate such a bond with a dog, but now has to since his final days are approaching and he wants to make sure that Birba is taken care of. On the other hand, another elderly protagonist, Aurelio is married, but his wife is far from happy with his truffle-hunting routines, like going away from home at night, since he is not in the perfect health.

One more veteran, Angelo, is an ex hunter who looks and acts more like a poet than a farmer, complete with his long beard, hair and a black beret that covers his bald scalp. He is the type of guy who tries to capture his verbal rants on an ancient typewriter with a glass of red wine always near him. On the other hand of the spectre, there is one trader, Gianfranco, a younger fellow who makes his living by buying the truffles from the hunters and selling them to the clientele in Italy and abroad. The haggling with the hunters and the monologues to the clients are implied. We also get the glimpse to the top levels of truffle business through a well-off man who trains the future truffle experts and makes big deals at the expos.

One might draw the parallels to another Sundance-premiering European documentary, Honeyland, both regarding the topics and the slightly scripted approach to make a point that is a bit further-reaching than the enclosed world of truffles. The world itself is seen in somewhat romantic manner, laced with nostalgia, while the outer world driven by economics and profits is seen as something threatening. Dweck and Kershaw do stage some moments, especially when it comes to trading (it usually happens over night, away from prying eyes) to create an atmosphere of shadiness, but they are more interested in studying the life of the hunters through the series of bittersweet vignettes than in opening discussions about the exploitative nature of capitalism with truffles serving as an example.

Stylistically and technically, The Truffle Hunters is mostly a tasteful and well-polished film, with some exceptional camerawork handled by the writing-directing duo, smooth editing by Charlotte Munch Bengtsen and the fitting musical cues by Ed Côrtes blending with the local traditional music. At some points, Dweck and Kershaw, however, try to be too showy, which is the case with the sequences shot with a Go Pro-style camera attached to the dogs that are deviating from the rest of the film’s imagery and simply seem fake or at least tampered with albeit they are probably the most “real” stuff in the documentary. Additional problem with them is the low-fi sound recorded via the bug-type microphones. But nevertheless, The Truffle Hunters is a worthwhile watch.

Year: 2020
Runtime: 84’
Countries: United States, Italy, Greece
Languages: Italian, French
Directed by: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw
Written by: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw
Cinematography by: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw
Editing by: Charlotte Munch Bengtsen
Music by: Ed Côrtes
Sound design by: Stephen Urata
Sound recording by: Mirko Guerra, Matia Strang
Colourist: Marcy Robinson
Produced by: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw
Co-produced by: René Simon Cruz Jr, Letizia Guglielmino
Production companies: Beautiful Stories, Bow and Arrow Entertainment, Park Pictures
Sales by: Sony Pictures