The Truffle Hunters: Dog Days Are Over, by David Bax
With The Truffle Hunters, directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw have proved that their gorgeous and wry 2018 film The Last Race, one of the best documentaries of the decade, was no fluke. Both films are too hilariously naturalistic to be staged but often too beautiful to feel real; in one scene in The Truffle Hunters, two old men swap grievances about the truffle market in the middle of a grove of fruit trees, one man on the ground and one on a ladder, forming a triangle beneath a proscenium of gnarled branches. It’s stunning. Furthermore, Dweck and Kershsaw have proved that they possess thematic preoccupations that link both works. Two films into their career and their auteurist credentials are cemented.
In furthest northwestern Italy, old men and their dogs search the forest for rare white truffles that are coveted by chefs and gourmands the whole world round. The Truffle Hunters sticks mainly with this small subculture but pursues occasional–and crucial–asides into the lives of those who buy and sell the truffles as well as those who appraise them, auction them, teach sommelier-level classes on their aroma profiles and, of course, eat them shaved on top of their pricey, Michelin-starred dinners.
If The Truffle Hunters has a specific niche audience in mind, though, it’s not foodies. This is, above all, a documentary for dog lovers. No one loves their amazing dogs quite like these hunters and the film’s most delightfully humanistic scenes are actually those depicted adoring monologues from hunter to canine. They talk to their dogs incessantly because, one gets the impression, they like them more than they do other people. Because of this, it’s likely that, at the end of the movie, you’ll be better able to recall the dogs’ names than the humans’. You’ll identify with the animals a bit, too, thanks to Dweck and Kershaw’s employment of a dog-cam, a GoPro-type camera strapped on top of an eager, truffle-seeking pup.
There’s sadness at the edge of all this. As everyone who had a pooch for a childhood friend knows, dogs don’t live as long as people. This is starkly highlighted when we learn that the forests where the truffle are found are also often full of poisoned baits, intentionally left by rival hunters to kill other dogs and keep them away. It’s both gutting and heartwarming to see two gray-haired men swapping stories about a dog who passed away like old friends at a wake. It’s also sad to be reminded of the opposite problem; as these men are near the end of their lives, they have to consider that their dogs will outlive them. One man, in his mid-80s and never having married or had children, repeatedly presents his dog with options for who might be able to take care of her when he’s gone.
Dweck and Kershaw do, however, have fun with what could have been the movie’s other downer note. The contrast between the cosmopolitan outfits of the truffle buyers and the mud-caked work clothes of the hunters is comical and that’s before we even get to the pomp and circumstance of the truffle connoisseurs, obsessing over the positioning of a wine bottle next to a truffle on a lavish pillow before the commencement of an auction. The commentary on the lives of the bean counters (well, truffle counters) and those of the hardscrabble working men is wisely left for the audience to arrive at by themselves.
The Last Race was about the final days of a locally owned stock car race track on Long Island. With The Truffle Hunters, Dweck and Kershaw have fashioned another portrait of a dying, working class way of life that’s as funny as it is mournful.