What do you get when you combine director-cinematographers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, executive producer Luca Guadagnino and a group of Italian octogenarians? The answer: sensuously colorful cinema reminiscent of Wes Anderson and intimate portraiture.
“The Truffle Hunters” isn’t about a plight to dig up valuable white Alba truffles. Rather, the film is about the people it’s named for. It recounts the divide between the at times morose, but usually homely truffle hunters and the glitzy people who consume truffles in dripping restaurants; the divide between the harvesters and a world that harvests too much, imperiling trades everywhere.
Though it speaks to independent artisans throughout the world, “The Truffle Hunters” focuses on just one trade. The artisans in question here, however, unearth truffles that go for hundreds of dollars an ounce — not quite the image of universality.
Side-stepping criticism of opulence and high-dining, “The Truffle Hunters” rests itself on a modest backstop: the endearing group of hunters and their truffle-sniffing dogs. Dweck and Kershaw get at a lush culture both unconcerned and at odds with the people who devour its labor, and the truffle hunter becomes a sort of pacifist, a recluse from a pointlessly bustling other dimension. The rustic hunter, ever captured with an enchanting camera, and his — “The Truffle Hunters” is a very male film — dog faces off against the underworldly, Land Rover driving distributor in a documentary that carefully personalizes a slipping culture.
The adorable essence that shines in some of the hunters, the arbiters of the film’s mood, sours. Greed spoils innocence and deals are struck in back alleys by the light of headlights. You might hold your breath, half expecting a hunter to be robbed. The simple decency that once characterized the hunt is replaced by a sinister melee, such as the unseen competitors who leave poison baits for other dogs. These disciplined hunters, chastising a devilish race for riches, will take their secrets to the grave.
“The Truffle Hunters” straps us in quickly, and every time a hunter calls for his dogs, panic edges in. What if Birba (a dog) doesn’t come bouncing back? You become attached to these dogs in part because segments are filmed from their eyes.
Somehow, a film dearly respectful of canine and craft is all about the denigration of respect. Even more astonishing, “The Truffle Hunters” captures all these tangents with cinematography that’s usually at home in the narrative feature. The awesome aesthetic is as much an oddity as the gnarled people and fungi the elegant camera captures.
That oddity isn’t necessarily for good. The camera work is so fine, “The Truffle Hunters” appears more concerned with earning cinematography, not journalistic recognition. In some ways, the film’s staying power slides with its finesse. “The Truffle Hunters” is sincere to its subjects, but not sincere enough to forego appearances, and the camera can’t fully capitalize on its subjects. How much was left out because it wasn’t gorgeously shot? Dweck and Kershaw elevate documentary cinematography, but the effect is a distraction from the narrative they spin instead of a contribution.
Still, the static, almost tactile compositions in “The Truffle Hunters” probe what’s so great about technology, and why we should think this is a band of Luddites at all. Technology corrupts their world. And how much regard does that gourmand, sitting alone in a restaurant with exclusivity’s allure for his company, have for the traditions that dug up the truffle shaved onto his plate?
None, according to “The Truffle Hunters.” For that man, the only concern is how soon the truffle makes it into his mouth. The aged hunters’ aversion to economized methods hits true when you realize you hear the dogs’ names more than the humans’. These humble and peaceful eccentrics are the last of a generation shoved aside by indulgence. In capturing all that, “The Truffle Hunters” straddles a chasm in the way only good cinema can — though the camera might be more catchy than the narrative.
Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].