Producers: Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw Directors: Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw Cast: Carlo Gonella, Sergio Cauda, Aurelio Conterno, Angelo Gagliardi, Maria Cicciù, Gianfranco Curti, Paolo Stacchini, Piero Botto, Egidio Gagliardi, Birba, Biri, Charlie, Fiona, Nina, Titina and Yari Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
It’s a pity that Michael Todd’s ill-fated Smell-O-Vision format, which proved a bust in 1960, wasn’t available for use in Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s delicious documentary about aged Piedmontese truffle gatherers and the cherished dogs that sniff out the gastronomically prized fungus for then. We’re frequently shown connoisseurs checking the aroma of specimens as one of the major guides to their quality. If only we could share the experience.
Even limited to the senses of sight and sound, though, the film is a charming divertissement—and also a poignant one, since it depicts what is perhaps the final stages of a long and venerable tradition.
The hunters are all in their seventies and eighties, and while some continue to go out into the lush woods to seek out the delicacy, all admit that it’s a trade that’s grown more difficult, and even dangerous, because of greedy outsiders who have invaded the area and resort to frightening practices—even threatening the dogs—to keep the rare commodity to themselves.
The subjects are a diverse lot. On the one hand there’s the acerbically eccentric Angelo, who’s given up hunting because of the interlopers and angrily refuses to reconsider when pressured by the buyer who’s always purchased his family’s stock. (Angelo, an erstwhile poet and self-proclaimed womanizer, is also shown trying to bang out a kind of manifesto on his aged typewriter, enraged when the machine breaks down.)
On the other hand there’s seemingly docile Carlo, who refuses to heed the demands of his wife that he stop his hunting. In the final scene of the film, in fact, the old man is shown climbing out a window early one morning to evade her watch and make his way to the woods.
Apart from the hunters and their dogs—who are treated like beloved children (another of the men, who angrily refuses to show the same buyer his “secret spots,” rejects an offer to purchase his with a counter-offer to buy the man’s son)—there aren’t many supporting people in the cast. The buyer Gianfranco appears in a couple of scenes, the last sitting at a dinner table with his daughter, where he bemoans the fact that he can’t enjoy the truffles because he’s too busy to cook them). And there’s another buyer, a plump, stuffy fellow who dickers over truffles brought to him for purchase and is shown sniffing at a dish containing some). A few scenes of a truffle auction periodically appear.
There’s also the local priest, as old as the hunters, who in one instance blesses a hunter and his dog in church, praying that the hound’s sense of smell will remain acute. In another scene, he assures a hunter that in heaven he’ll continue to search for truffles, since doing so is the great love of his life.
It’s the men and their dogs that make “The Truffle Hunters” so enjoyable, but our pleasure is enhanced by Dweck and Kershaw’s lovely cinematography and Charlotte Munch Bengtsen’s delicate editing. The music score by Ed Côrtes is also fine, though much of the effect comes from the repeated use of “Follow Me,” Bronislaw Kaper’s evocative melody from the 1962 “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Like the truffles that are the object of its subjects’ obsession, this little film is a rare find.