The most successful documentaries are often ones that lead us by the hand into worlds we didn’t know existed. Whether it’s The Act of Killing lifting the lid on political atrocities, or King Of Kong opening up the world of competitive arcade gaming, the medium can offer a passport to a different side of life.
It’s likely that many who go to see The Truffle Hunters will not be experts in the field, or have thought about truffles a great deal. We go to Northern Italy and meet four men – Aurelio, Carlo, Egidio, and Sergio – who practice the traditional means of truffle hunting, going out into the woods with their dogs looking for the rare White Alba truffle. They are the first link in a chain that will see the fungus make its way to exclusive restaurant tables in exchange for a lot of money, of which they see only a small percentage.
Nevertheless, directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw find that the men are not in it for fame and fortune, but for the love of the hunt, and their hounds. Gruff and solitary men, their four-legged colleagues are often the closest friends in their lives, meaning that they care very little about passing on the craft to future generations.
This is illustrated in one particularly heated discussion where a younger hopeful wishes to learn of Aurelio’s “secret spots”, arguing that his knowledge dying with him would be a “disaster”. “Never! Never” the old man replies. It’s hard to know if the rejection is defence against companies who would industrialise the area, or simply ego preventing him from sharing this gold dust. Either way, it’s a refreshing contrast to the pomp and circumstance we meet later on.
That’s not to say that the film is a critique of those who pay to consume their ways. On the contrary, the gorgeous cinematography takes as much time celebrating their enjoyment of the product as they do with the hunters’ pursuit of it. From the chefs who prepare the dishes to the customers who are filmed in raptures, it’s clear that their passion is presented as just as valid. It’s not as fun as the old men and their canine counterparts (who are fitted with cameras during the hunts), but makes this feel more like a visit than an examination.
The Truffle Hunters is a portrait of humble beauty, as well as how almost anything can be destroyed by money. It would be easy to shake your fist at how something so rural can be gentrified beyond the grasp of those who discover it. However, that would be to misinterpret the philosophy of the subjects themselves, who simply enjoy the hunt while they are here.