March 28, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw
Italian with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in rural Piedmont, Italy, the documentary “The Truffle Hunters” features an all-white group of people, from middle-aged to elderly, who are involved in the business of harvesting, selling and buying truffles.
Culture Clash: The truffle hunters, who are set in their traditional ways and live without modern technology, are part of a dwindling group of people whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change, pollution and construction that destroys forest trees.
Culture Audience: “The Truffle Hunters” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a rarely seen Italian community that knows where to harvest coveted delicacies such as white Alba truffles.
The cinéma vérité-styled documentary “The Truffle Hunters” (which was filmed during a three-year period) is the type of movie that people will either find fascinating or dull. There’s no really no in-between, because viewers’ interest in watching this movie will largely depend on how much they want to peek into the secretive world of how the rare delicacy of white Alba truffles are found in Piedmont, Italy. It’s a very niche subject that isn’t supposed to be a blockbuster movie for generic audiences.
Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, “The Truffle Hunters” takes place primarily in rural Piedmont, Italy, where several middle-aged and elderly men are continuing their traditions of truffle hunting in the forests. It’s a very competitive and mysterious tradition, where truffle hunters do not like to share information with anyone over where they find their truffles. The only real loyalty that they have in their truffle hunting is to their beloved dogs that they rely on to sniff out the truffles.
That doesn’t mean that friendships can’t be formed among the truffle hunters. It just means that even among close friends, it would be bad for an individual’s business to reveal secret truffle locations or ways that they find these locations. When they get together to talk business, they often lie about what they found so that they can mislead their competitors.
As a result of this cutthroat mentality, the dark side of truffle hunting is mentioned several times in the documentary: The hunting dogs are often at risk of ingesting poison that competing hunters put in the woods. No one is seen in the documentary actually planting the poison. But as soon it’s mentioned that truffle hunter dogs get poisoned, you just know that it’s probably going to happen to someone’s dog in this movie.
Because of all the deceit and dog murders involved in truffle hunting, truffle hunters can be very solitary and paranoid when they do their work. When they do gather in duos or groups, it’s usually so they can try to get information that will be in their own best interests. But they can’t really completely trust each other because of all the risks of sharing valuable information with rivals, many of whom don’t hesitate to murder dogs for the sake of trying to get ahead of the competition. Muzzles are placed on the truffle hunting dogs to try to protect them from poison, but these muzzles aren’t always effective in preventing a dog from ingesting something deadly.
In some of the scenes in “The Truffle Hunters,” cameras were placed on the dogs, so that there’s literally a dog’s eye-view during the truffle hunt. As expected, these are the part of the movie where there’s a lot of shaky cam footage. It’s an eye-catching technique that gives more of an adrenaline-pumping perspective of what it’s like to be on the hunt for truffles, since the dogs often run during the hunt, while their elderly human masters do not.
As shown in the documentary, the truffle hunters who are staunchly traditionalist refuse to go “high-tech.” The truffle hunters featured in the movie live in homes without computers, Internet access, cell phones or even televisions. And it should come as no surprise that truffle hunting in this part of Italy is not a job that is very welcoming to women. You get the feeling that the men involved in truffle hunting think of it as an exclusive fraternity, and they want to keep it that way.
The documentary is often very slow-paced, but it allows the viewers to have a sense of how lifestyles in this isolated rural area are stuck almost in a time warp, and people are reluctant to change. Truffle hunting is also a job that is having difficulty attracting young people, who are inclined to want jobs that pay more money or are located in more populated areas. None of the truffle hunters featured in the documentary has anyone in younger generations of their families who are willing to continue these traditions of finding truffles.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a demand for white Alba truffles. In fact, demand has risen, as these types of truffles have become increasingly harder to find. That’s partly because of the changing landscape/terrain affected by climate change, pollution and urban development that cuts down forest trees for wood or to make way for buildings. And it’s partly because there are less truffle hunters available to find and harvest truffles.
“The Truffle Hunters” might frustrate viewers who prefer documentaries that identify people by showing their names on screen when the people are speaking or first appear on screen. There are no “talking head” interviews, so viewers will find out an individual’s name if someone else says that person’s name in the movie. The people who are featured the most in the movie are:
- Sergio Cauda, who was 68, when this movie was filmed, is the most adventurous and social one in the group. He hunts every day with his dogs Fiona and Pepe.
- Aurelio Conterno, who was 84 when this movie was filmed, is a never-married bachelor with no children and has no humans living with him. He treats his female dog Birba like a kid who is his best friend.
- Gianfranco Curti is an ambitious, middle-aged truffle dealer who buys from the truffle hunters and and sells to local and international merchants and restaurants.
- Angelo Gagliardi, who was 78 at the time this movie is filmed, is an eccentric poet/farmer who wants to get out of the truffle hunting business because he thinks it’s become too corrupt. Just like Conterno, he’s the only human in his household and treats his dog (Nina) as his most trusted companion.
- Egidio Gagliardi, who was 83 when this movie was filmed, is Angelo’s cousin and a truffle hunter/salesman who works with scientists to find the right trees and conditions to cultivate and harvest truffles.
- Carlo Gonella, who was 88 at the time that this movie was filmed, sneaks out at night to find truffles, much to the disapproval of his wife Maria Cicciù, who fears for his safety when he’s truffle hunting.
- Paolo Stacchini, who was 78 at the time that this movie was filmed, is a truffle authenticator/judge whose job is to determine the quality and value of individual truffles.
A great deal of the documentary shows what happens in the transaction phase of the truffle business. Truffle dealer Curti has taken over the family business from his father, but Curti is shown to be someone who is not as well-respected by the local truffle hunters as his father was. The hunters feel that Curti’s father was more polite and more understanding in dealing with the truffle hunters.
If there’s a “villain” in the movie, it would be Curti, who tries to lowball the hunters on purchase offers. At one point in a sale negotiation, he offers €150 for 100 grams of truffles. He’s a tough negotiator who puts up a lot of resistance to buy at a suggested higher price. In another scene, he has an argument with an elderly man named Franco, who accuses Curti of coming into his territory and buying truffles from his hunters.
And it’s shown later in the movie that Curti only sees truffles as a way to make as much money as possible, not as a food delicacy that he personally enjoys. In one scene, he has dinner with his daughter (who’s about 7 or 8 years old) and smugly says that it’s ironic that he sells so many truffles because he and his family don’t even eat truffles.
Because the dogs are so important to truffle hunting, they are exalted more than a typical household pet. Cauda takes a bath with his dog Fiona in his bathtub. Conterno thinks Birba is the best truffle-hunting dog in the area, and he cooks special meals for her and has conversations with her as if she were human. Gonella gets his favorite dog Tritina blessed by a local priest during a church service.
Conterno and his dog Birba are probably the ones who are considered the most successful truffle hunters in this group. And they appear to be sought-after by people who know the reputation of this dynamic truffle-hunting duo. In one scene, an unidentified man in his 30s has a meal at restaurant with Conterno and tries to entice the truffle hunter into sharing some the tricks of his trade.
The younger man says to Conterno: “You’re 84 years old. You have no wife, no children. You’re the best truffle hunter. Can you show me your secret spots? Or can I go truffle hunting with you?’
Conterno replies, “Never! Never! We can go truffle hunting, but in your place or in a place where neither of us knows. We can go to a new place.”
“The Truffle Hunters” also shows some of the disillusionment and strained relationships that can happen with people involved in truffle hunting. According to the “Truffle Hunters” production notes, cousins Angelo Gagliardi and Egidio Gagliardi didn’t speak to each other for 10 years, even though they lived only two miles from each other. Curti’s often-abrasive manner has caused tension because he’s aggressively positioned himself as the truffle dealer who wields the most clout with these truffle hunters.
Farmer spouses Gonella and Cicciù seem to have an overall happy marriage, but nevertheless bicker about his truffle hunting. She often gets exasperated and worried when he sneaks off to truffle hunt and she can’t find him. She doesn’t think it’s safe for him to truffle hunt in his advanced age. The spouses do have some harmonious moments together, such as a scene where he helps her sort and clean tomatoes in their kitchen.
And the dog poisonings have caused a certain distrust in the truffle-hunting community, because fellow truffle hunters who can be outwardly pleasant to each other can also secretly plot to murder each other’s dogs. The situation is compounded because it’s hard to prove who’s been poisoning the dogs. Even if there were eyewitnesses, you get the feeling that the people in this community wouldn’t snitch or go to the trouble of having anyone arrested for this crime.
Angelo Gagliardi also expresses why he wants to quit truffle hunting, by saying that “there are too many greedy people. They don’t do it for fun or to play with their dogs or to spend some time in nature. They only want money … People use poisons to kill the dogs.”
The die-hard truffle hunters who want to continue truffle hunting until they’re dead or physically unable to walk in the woods are clearly doing it as a passion, first and foremost. They don’t see it as a hobby or fleeting interest but as a way of life. They’re also truffle hunting because they like the competition aspect of this type of work. Truffle hunting is embedded in their identity, and they all naturally want to be considered “the best.”
Greed and egos certainly factor into truffle hunting. However, the documentary shows that these hunters are not the ones making the most money from truffle sales. The hunters seem to be happy with making enough money to live comfortably, because they’re definitely not getting rich from truffle hunting.
A certain part of the documentary also shows the process of preparing white Alba truffles at an auction house. They’re treated almost like rare jewels, with inspectors, deluxe displays and media photographers taking pictures. During an auction shown in the documentary, one truffle sold for $110,000.
The pomp and circumstance of truffle auctions are quite the contrast from the modest and simple lives led by the truffle hunters who go in the woods to find these treasured items. And that seems to be the whole point of this documentary: The people who harvest luxurious white Alba truffles probably have fascinating stories to tell and take pride in a custom that’s so rich in tradition that you can’t put a price tag on it.
Sony Pictures Classics released “The Truffle Hunters” in select U.S. cinemas on March 5, 2021.