Digging (Not Too Deep) for Cinematic Delicacies

in 31st Tromsø International Film Festival

by Giuseppe Sedia

There will be no goldrush for the most sought-after subterranean fungi, or, at least, it is unlikely to occur in northwest Italy. Piedmont is not Alaska. Similarly, the truffle hunters portrayed in the documentary film concocted by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw are not an army of displaced, desperate and ready-for-everything prospectors. Truffle collectors and their dogs would usually have to dig relatively deep in the ground to find their aromatic target. By contrast, the online juries and viewers, who assembled for the 31st edition of the Tromsø International Film Festival, did not have to root around too much in the program just to discover solid pieces of cinema.

The FIPRESCI-awarded The Truffle Hunters (2020) was certainly one of those. Dweck’s and Kershaw’s effort, distributed by Sony Picture Classics, is all but a slow-paced, elitist, cinematic spot for Alba white truffles, one of the most expensive foods in the world. What is important here is that is really does not matter who is doing job, humans or canines. The film focuses to a great extent on the emotional bond between a handful of “tartufai” deeply rooted in the territory they belong to, and their lifelong companions. The dogs even appear to have the same dignity of their owners.

This approach seems to be confirmed by the camerawork that includes a bunch of dogs’ point-of-view shots which can be dizzying at times. They stand in stark contrast to the static, medium long-shots used to portray the characters in their milieu, immutable only in appearance. One of the truffle hunters, for instance, is portrayed while sharing with his “four-legged confessor” the fears for the future facing them. The elderly “tartufaio” mainly reflects aloud on the fate of his precious friend after his death. Dweck and Kershaw don’t skate over the story of another truffle hunter, who experiences the loss of his beloved canine at work: intentional poisoning of dogs has not been an uncommon practice for settling accounts in the most profitable hunting grounds, alas.

The personal stories narrated by the truffle hunters are distilled into less than 90 minutes of pregnant accounts, which are usually light in tone but never superficial. Passion for nature as well as well respect for the land and traditions are serious matters. And yet, that does not imply that the narrations cannot be amusing. So are the episodes around the elderly couple consisting of a very fit early riser in his eighties, addicted to truffle hunting, and his not-so-submissive wife – despite the often rather conservative family values sometimes still to be found in rural Italy. During the entire film, the wife tries to persuade him, using a more-carrot-than-stick approach, to give up a hobby that maybe now has become too demanding for him.

The duo of American filmmakers even managed to make the misanthropy of the characters look not only acceptable, but even desirable. That is the case with the retired truffle hunter and former acrobat, who becomes a hermit with a knack for writing. Suddenly he finds himself lost in stacks of books and wine. As a penman, his flow in front of the typewriter leaves something to be desired. Still, his sincere account on truffle hunting expresses all the bitterness for the ongoing and inevitable loss of a tradition whose deterioration is there on the screen for all to watch.

This activity heavily relies on knowledge of the right woodland spots, which are not necessarily a guarantee of success after digging the soil. Not surprisingly, the men are reluctant to pass on their skills. After all – what would be the use of spilling the beans to non-initiated individuals only driven by profit? Will the truffle hunters succeed in taking the secrets of their exclusive activity to their grave? This is only one of the dilemmas Dweck and Kershaw wrestled with in this shining essay of documentary filmmaking. 

Giuseppe Sedia
© FIPRESCI 2021
Edited by Birgit Beumers