An elderly man lives alone with his dog, Birba, in Piedmont, northern Italy. He has no wife or children — Birba is the love of his life — but he’s in his late-80s now and is faced with the prospect of finding her a new home for when he passes. (“I will find you a wild woman,” he promises her, “there are some good ones but they’re rare. I will leave her the house, and she will take care of you.”) He jokes, but he’s worried for Birba: she’s one of a handful of highly-trained truffle-hunting dogs, and an animal like her could be taken advantage of for those looking to cash in on the business.
This is one of the many whimsical scenes from The Truffle Hunters, a documentary recently screened at this year’s mostly virtual New York Film Festival. The film follows a small group of Italian men who live in the chilly forests of Piedmont, where they hunt for white Alba truffles: They’re a pricey delicacy — in 2017, under two pounds worth sold for over $85,000 — and they’ve proved impossible to cultivate outside of their natural conditions. But as demand for the fungus increases, supply, largely due to climate change and deforestation, has dwindled.
The Truffle Hunters is focused on the Alba truffle’s most skilled foragers: half a dozen Italian men in their twilight years who keep the secrets of hunting to themselves. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw were granted unprecedented access into their lives, which are slow and tranquil and full of simple pleasures, like fresh tomatoes, good wine, and the bulky knit sweaters they seem to have an endless supply of. The slice-of-life portrait brought to mind last year’s Oscar-winning Honeyland, about a woman who uses ancient beekeeping methods to cultivate honey in Macedonia.
Like Honeyland the documentary is purely observational, with early scenes focusing on the loving bond between the foragers and their dogs. They eat evening soup together, sleep together, and even bathe together. It’s clear—as they sing, shampoo, and kiss them—that the hunters love their dogs more than truffles and the small amount of money they get from selling them.
The portrait of the hunters’ lives is juxtaposed with the back-alley deals and posh private offices in which the mushrooms they sell for hundreds of euros are flipped by slick, suited dealers for tens of thousands. And while they only seem to be aware of some of it, the hunters are disturbed by the greed and exploitation they’ve witnessed in the business: Many of them refuse to share the techniques of the hunt, passed to them by their own fathers, and when several of their dogs are poisoned and killed by competition, you can’t blame them.
But what The Truffle Hunters ultimately questions is whether our perceived luxuries are what really make for a good life. The wealthy clients that deal in the lucrative aspects of the delicacy, and even the statesmen and gastronomes that end up eating them on pasta, have nothing of the joie de vivre that is so evident in the lives of the hunters. Take the film’s final scene, when Carlos, an 87-year-old hunter, is scolded by his wife after he comes back from hunting after dark one day: “You need to think about the fact that you are almost at the end of your life,” she tells him, afraid that he will hurt himself. “What if this is just the beginning?” he answers her, earnestly.
The Truffle Hunters will be released on December 25th.