Photo: courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
The older man lives alone with his dog Birba in Piedmont in northern Italy. He has no wife or children – Birba is the love of his life – but he is now in his late 80s and is faced with the prospect of finding her a new home when he passes. (“I’ll find you a wild woman,” he promises, “there are good ones, but they’re rare. I’ll leave her a house, and she’ll take care of you.”) He’s joking, but he’s worried about Birba: she’s one of a handful high trained truffle hunting dogs, and an animal like her could be used for those who want to cash in on the business.
This is one of many whimsical scenes from Truffle hunters, a documentary recently screened at this year ‘s mostly virtual New York Film Festival. The film follows a small group of Italians living in the cool forests of Piedmont, where they hunt white truffles Alba: They are an expensive delicacy – in 2017, less than two pounds worth over 85,000 US dollars – and proved impossible to grow outside their natural conditions. But as demand for fungi increases, supply, largely due to climate change and deforestation, is declining.
Truffle hunters it focuses on Alba’s most skilled truffle food: half a dozen Italians in their twilight years who keep the secrets of the hunt to themselves. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw have been given unprecedented access to their lives, which are slow, serene, and full of simple pleasures, such as fresh tomatoes, good wine, and bulky knit sweaters with which there seems to be no endless quantity. The portrait of a slice of life was reminiscent of last year’s Oscar winner Honeyland, about a woman who uses ancient beekeeping methods to grow honey in Macedonia.
I like Honeyland the documentary is purely observational, with early scenes focusing on the love affair between fodder and their dogs. They eat evening soup together, sleep together, and even bathe. It is clear – as they sing, shampoo and kiss them – that hunters love their dogs more than truffles and the small amount of money they get from sales.
The portrait of hunters ’lives is contrasted with back-street businesses and posh private offices where mushrooms sold for hundreds of euros are flipped through by smooth, dealers suitable for tens of thousands. And while they seem to be aware of only a few, hunters are troubled by the greed and exploitation they have witnessed at work: Many of them refuse to share the hunting techniques passed down to them by their fathers, and when several of their dogs are poisoned and killed by competition, you cannot resent them.
But what Truffle hunters in the end, the question arises as to whether our perceived luxuries are what really make a good life. Wealthy clients who deal with the lucrative aspects of treats, and even statesmen and gastronomes who end up eating them on pasta, have none of the joy that is so evident in the lives of hunters. Take the final scene of the film, when Carlos, an 87-year-old hunter, is abused by his wife after he returns one day after a hunt in the dark: “You have to think about being almost at the end of your life,” she tells him, fearing injury . “What if this is just the beginning?” he answers her sincerely.
Truffle hunters will be released on December 25th.