Carlo’s wife won’t let him hunt truffles at night anymore, not since he bumped into a tree and scraped his face. The elderly Carlo isn’t happy about this. He’ll sneak out into the dark if he needs to. He’s one of a handful of men who hunt the prized and elusive Alba truffle in the forests of Piedmont, Italy, and he’s among the subjects of Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s exquisite documentary, which takes viewers from the busy woodland floor to the austere dining rooms of the elite.
In this mildly absurdist exploration of the path from hunt to plate, in which every gorgeous shot is framed like a painting, the love story is between the hunters and their dogs. The midsize mutts sniff out truffles and show their owners where to dig. Hunters sell their goods to truffle dealers, who mark up the prices to sell them to fine restaurants. In the city, truffles are treated like pieces of fine art or designer drugs, as dealers meet in alleyways to discuss prices, and gourmands lean over velvet pillows to sniff the earthy, lumpen growths.
The Truffle Hunters has no narrative voiceover or title cards. Dweck and Kershaw offer no exposition or introduction about truffles, their importance to chefs and foodies, or anything else. We learn early on that the aging truffle hunters featured here plan to take their coveted secrets to the grave. They hunt alone, kind to each other when they meet, but fiercely competitive about their finds. We join them in their rural homes, which resemble the crumbling stone abodes that populate fairytales and bear witness to their eccentricities. One eats elaborate dinners with his dog, while another types screeds about society’s greed for truffles (which is why he won’t hunt them anymore). Another man shares a bathtub with his dog and pounds a drum set in his yard, a raucous party of one.
The whole movie has the feel of a Shakespearean comedy in which the meaning of life is found in the forest, not the court — or in this case, at the food festivals and upscale restaurants, where truffles have been cleaned and shaved for presentation. Whenever we go to the city, the wildness of the hunt is sanitized and a sense of airlessness momentarily pervades. It’s a wonderful relief to enter the shade of the trees once more, to hear Carlo’s wife calling to him across the fields. ◀
Documentary, rated PG-13, 84 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts Cinema, 4 chiles