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The Truffle Hunters documentary review: following a passion right into the ground

MaryAnn’s quick take: One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. Delightful in its simplicity and profound in its wisdom. Specific yet universal, it’s an empathetic portrait of charming subjects. It’s also really funny.
I’m “biast” (pro): big mushroom fan
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The Truffle Hunters is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. It is delightful in its simplicity, and also profound in its depth and wisdom. It is a gorgeous, empathetic portrait of its charming subjects. It is beautiful to look at, with painterly cinematography replete with compositions that look like the secret stuff unearthed from the studios of the Old Masters. It is specific — oh-so specific! — and yet universal, too, an ode to following one’s passion and living one’s best life, no matter what anyone else thinks of you. It’s also really, really funny, honing right in on human idiosyncrasies, on human contradictions and hypocrisies.

The Truffle Hunters
Vermeer was not a cinematographer on this movie, but he could have been.

The filmmaking team of Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw went to northern Italy, to the Piedmont mountains, to find the strange and lovely souls who wander the forests with their faithful dogs in search of white Alba truffle mushrooms, an incredibly valuable culinary treat. These are old men who seem out of touch with the modern world: they have no cell phones and use no modern technology in their work, and they abide by a code that is slipping away. (They are all men, and all of a certain age, suggesting that this is a way of life that is disappearing, as may be our access to the tasty mushrooms themselves, which grow only in the wild.) There are the “rules of the truffle system,” in which one hunter might — might — share news of a find with another, and also in which there is a shocking difference between what the hunters are paid and what the middlemen sell them on for.

In the same way that I can know the names of all the dogs in my neighborhood but never remember the names of their people, this is how I recall The Truffle Hunters: There is Birba, the beautifully odd sorta-poddle mix (I think?) who is welcome to jump on the dinner table to share a meal with her elderly bachelor master, for whom Birba is his only companion. There is Tintina, the truffle-hunting dog who gets blessed at church by the priest. Dogs are sung to in the bath here; dogs howl along with their human masters’ music out of love. This is a story about the relationships between humans and dogs the likes of which we have rarely seen before, even amongst all the very many movies we’ve gotten about people and pooches.

The Truffle Hunters
Meanwhile, where the wealthy go grocery shopping…

But this is also an examination — a subtly sharp and scathing one — about the vast divide between passion and commerce. We see a world that Birba’s and Tintina’s masters never see, one in which truffles displayed on red velvet pillows are auctioned off at prices a hundred times or more what their discoverers were paid, one in which fancy ladies sniffing truffles in wine glasses is a million miles away, culturally and philosophically, from the darling old crusty dudes scrabbling around in the woods with their dogs. This is the quirky reality of tradition and honor crashing up against cold hard capitalism, and no one on either side of the harsh divide even realizes it.

The Truffle Hunters is, then, a soothing balm for our times and a smack at it. Both of which are very welcome indeed.

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