"The Truffle Hunters" is opening Friday at AMC Madison 6 and was reviewed from a digital streaming link.
“The Truffle Hunters” opens with a long shot of a wooded hillside in autumn, covered in gold and orange leaves. As the camera slowly comes closer, we see a man and his two dogs scrambling up and down the hill.
When I first saw the documentary last October at the virtual New York Film Festival, that beautiful and tranquil scene really affected me in the midst of such a hectic and frightening time. Seven months later, as the world calms down and opens up again, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary is still a tonic, especially if you love (in no particular order) good dogs, old Italian men and beautiful forests in autumn. And, of course, truffles.
In the Piedmont region of northern Italy lives the rare white Alba truffle, prized by chefs and restaurateurs around the world. For such a hot commodity in 21st-century dining, the procurement of these truffles remains stubbornly medieval — trained dogs with sensitive noses have to sniff them out in the soil.
About a half-dozen truffle hunters, all men between the ages of 60 to 80, are the keepers of this ancient trade, one that seems to be on the verge of fading away. Part of this erasure is self-inflicted, as the hunters refuse to give up the hunt and won’t share their secrets with younger generations.
But part of it involves forces well beyond their control: the globalization of the food supply making their little corner of the world a little less precious, and climate change making the soil a poorer place for truffles to grow. In some ways, the documentary reminded me of the Oscar-nominated “Honeyland,” as a Macedonian beekeeper finds her ancient way of life under siege.
These forces provide a quietly poignant undertow to “The Truffle Hunters,” which is otherwise delightful as man and dog go off in the forests as equal partners in search of buried treasure. Dweck and Kershaw shoot the hunters’ lives as a series of fixed tableaux, tiny slices of life that add up to a bigger picture. The exception is when they strap a GoPro to one of the dogs, and we get a dog’s eye view as the pooches race through the forest, snuffling intently. It's an action scene as immersive as anything in "Godzilla vs. Kong."
Most of the men live alone, and their bond with their dogs is palpable; one lets his dog stand on the table while he slurps down soup, chatting away. The dog may be listening intently, or may be waiting to get at some of that soup. Probably some of both.
The exception among these bachelors is one 87-year-old man whose long-suffering wife is trying to convince him to stop truffle hunting, worried that he’ll hurt himself wandering around the woods in the dark. “You need to think about the fact that you are almost at the end of your life,” she tells him. “What if this is just the beginning?” he answers sincerely.
That memorable line sets up the final shot of “The Truffle Hunters,” one of my favorite movie endings of the last year. I won’t spoil it. You should uncover it for yourself.