A strange, funny, mysterious and rather beautiful film about an activity that’s recherché to say the least: truffle hunting, and it is a taste on which my palate still needs educating. (A very distinguished French film producer once took me and my colleague Xan Brooks out to lunch at a restaurant renowned for its truffles and when we failed to show the correct ecstasy, his expression of disappointment was almost priestly.) This film is also a heart-wrenchingly sweet study of the pure love that exists between old men and their dogs. The directors are Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, who made the 2018 award-winner The Last Race about a stock-car racing track threatened with redevelopment, and with that and The Truffle Hunters, these film-makers are developing a sympathy for arts (and artists) who may be dying out. Luca Guadagnino is the producer.
In the forests of Piedmont in northern Italy there is to be found a certain exquisite form of white truffle prized by connoisseurs and gourmands and restaurateurs the world over – and they are prepared to pay big money. The film shows auctions for these dusty, bulbous fungi with buyers showing the kind of overexcitement more associated with sales of wine or contemporary art.
These truffles can’t be farmed or grown in a lab. They can only be found by about half a dozen old, gnarled truffle-divining Italian guys and their dogs who have spent decades of their lives perfecting the art. They often hunt at night so that their rivals can’t find out where their top spots are. And notoriously, they are not training any young apprentices or letting anyone in on the secret. So their truffles are getting more and more mind-blowingly expensive because there is a real possibility that the truffles will vanish when the hunters die off. But the rising price and the rising cult of the truffle is keeping these mischievous, fascinating and stubborn old men alive. Scenes of them roaming through the dark forests reminded me of Roald Dahl’s descriptions of poaching in England.
Dweck and Kershaw show them in a series of formally composed tableaux, often consisting of two men (and it is a very male world: the only woman present is the aged and exasperated wife of one hunter in his late 80s, and she wants him to quit). Truffle hunters chat and squabble among themselves. A truffle broker sets up a sale with another man on a street corner as if he is doing a drug deal. A priest carries out a blessing on a hunter and his dog and in another scene reassures him that truffle-hunting will exist in heaven too. One angry old hunter (also a poet) types out an explanation of why he’s quitting the business and talks about how young people appreciate nothing – certainly not the challenge that men of his generation faced in undressing young women, a matter of getting past endless layers and then thick black stockings: “… when you arrived at the thighs you found butter”. Another truffle hunter talks about how younger truffle enthusiasts don’t want “to play with their dogs or spend time in nature – they just want money”.
You don’t have to watch this very long to realise that truffles aren’t the point – dogs are. I don’t think I have seen a movie recently with quite such a passionate devotion to dogs. It’s a film to leave you with a smile on your face.