Like the mysterious fungi that inspired it, The Truffle Hunters is inscrutable. You can't quite grasp the Italian documentary's journalistic backstory, even after attempting to read between its minimalistic lines. Perhaps directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw should have lengthened their movie to provide more historical and culinary context. Or perhaps, at 84 minutes of observational mesmerism, their film is perfect.
The truth lies closer to the latter, as the film's humor and beauty overwhelm its vagueness and tendency toward tedium. You will be particularly overjoyed to spend time with Birba, Nina, Fiona, Charlie, Yara, Vasco and Leo — the truffle hounds — and their elderly masters, as they scour the forests of northern Italy for the rare and prized subterranean fungus.
Regarding said fungus, if you don't know much about it before seeing the doc, you are likely to still be somewhat in the dark when the film ends. For instance, Dweck and Kershaw only superficially explore the foodie aspect of this topic. In addition, they never explain why it's so difficult to cultivate truffles and why the world must instead rely on "hunters." Instead, their deliberate, painterly camera focuses long and hard on the old men and their hounds, providing fascinatingly intimate glimpses into their lives.
The deliberate cinematography and pacing are interrupted only occasionally when Dweck and Kershaw strap cameras to the dogs, giving us a pup's-eye view of the hunt. This canine-subjective style enhances the film's emotional impact when we eventually learn that the truffle trade is so competitive that some hunters will go so far as to poison each other's dogs.
That revelation turns the film, if briefly, from a slice-of-lifer to something akin to an animal-rights movie, adding a necessary layer of complexity to the story. But in a year in which docs were even more depressing than normal, you will surely appreciate that The Truffle Hunters never loses its whimsy and exuberance.
The movie was well received at the Florida Film Festival earlier this month. That screening included a Zoom Q&A with the filmmakers, including Dweck, who attended the 2018 festival. (At that event, his documentary, The Last Race, won the Special Jury Award for Artistic Vision.)
The doc was even more warmly welcomed at the recent Directors Guild Awards, at which it won the top documentary prize. In a year that produced such outstanding docs as Boys State, Gunda and Some Kind of Heaven, awarding The Truffle Hunters the biggest prize seems a stretch. But it is testament to the film's likability and originality, and proves that — despite its minimalism and lack of a traditional narrative structure — the film is no trifle.
If you're seeing the film at Maitland's Enzian Theater, I suggest you complement your experience with an order of truffle fries. And the best part is you don't need a hound to find them. Just ask your server.