Shroom Service

"The Truffle Hunters" is a piquant documentary delight

Shroom Service

I probably weigh a movie on the quality of its dogs more than I should, but the dogs in “The Truffle Hunters” are a special bunch. They include Pepe and Fiona, enthusiastic pointers of some sort; Titina, a sad-eyed hound; and Birba, who looks like a cross between a cocker spaniel and a Muppet. The culinary world prizes them for their noses, but the elderly Italian men who own them – Sergio, Carlo, and Aurelio, respectively – simply love them as dogs. That’s one of the many paradoxes explored by Michael Dweck’s and Gregory Kershaw’s thoroughly charming, discreetly tough-minded documentary, which arrives for rental on most streaming platforms Tuesday, August 17. (Check for details then.)

Aurelio Conterno and Birba in “The Truffle Hunters”

The movie is a portrait of a fading way of life in the Piedmont of northern Italy. The fungi sniffed out by the dogs and dug up by the men are among the world’s most prized objects – tuber magnatum, the white truffle of Alba, worth up to $3,000 a pound – and they pass through well-heeled brokers, high-end auction houses, and five-star chefs on their way to the plates of presidents and millionaires. The gulf between the dirt the truffles come from and the menus on which they land couldn’t be wider, and “The Truffle Hunters” captures that arc with a subtle and critical eye. The filmmakers’ hearts are clearly with the hunters, and the hunters’ hearts are with the dogs, who are closer to them than most people ever get. We see Aurelio feeding birthday cake to Birba as she sits atop a kitchen table; Carlo taking Titina to church to be blessed by the priest; Sergio in the tub with Pepe. “The Truffle Hunters” isn’t able to get into the dogs’ heads, of course, but it does the next best thing by getting on them, outfitting one of Sergio’s animals with a dog-cam that lets us speed through the underbrush and snorfle in the soil. The movie has dirt under its nails in the best possible way.

The men are ancient, their way of life more ancient still. Aurelio is pressed by a young smoothie to reveal his secret hunting grounds before he passes on and the lore is lost to time; “Never!” he exults. Rising temperatures are reducing the yearly yield; higher demand has brought in amateur hunters who destroy habitats and lay poisoned bait to kill their rivals’ dogs. It becomes clear as we watch “The Truffle Hunters” that this may be the final act of a very old play.

Angelo Gagliardi and friend in “The Truffle Hunters”

Accordingly, Dweck and Kershaw bring a touch of the Old Masters to their camerawork. The opening image – a long shot of two dogs and a man coming into focus against a thickly treed hillside – is worthy of Breughel, and the way the hunters are posed with their animals at home, the light slanting through casement windows from the left, is a conscious evocation of Vermeer. What these men do is art, says “The Truffle Hunters.” What these men are is art, it implies. What the dogs are are dogs – nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

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