directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw
by Angelo Muredda "I can't send you the aroma by phone," a truffle dealer tells a prospective high-end client between eroticized sniffs of his own product early in Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw's sad and mordantly funny The Truffle Hunters. The impossible challenge of translating the singular olfactory pleasures of sampling a top-shelf white truffle into words over the phone is something of an apt analogy for Dweck and Kershaw's project. The filmmakers convert the idiosyncratic private lives and nonstandard labour of several elderly, taciturn northern Italian mushroom foragers and their dogs (who are also their business partners) into crowd-pleasing documentary fodder for foodies as well as people who go to nonfiction for a chance to gawk at eccentrics. It's deceptively simple work, equally warm when profiling the dynamics of the cross-species tag teams, bemused when surveying the frosty culinary scene (and clandestine back alleys) where truffles are bought and sold, and striking when it's framing the hunters as small figures navigating a big green world in beautiful, naturalist tableaux.
Dweck and Kershaw occasionally peer into the rarefied world of the sorts who live on the other end of that telephone call, buying what old pros like Carlo and Aurelio are unearthing at weird trade shows and fine-dining restaurants that are about as inviting as a museum. This material is diverting enough and shot through with an appropriate degree of incredulity at what people are willing to spend for a good mushroom, though it's not any more insightful than any number of traditional nonfiction surveys of foodies and their peculiar passions. More might have been made of the dark and tonally out-of-sync revelation that truffle-hunting is a dangerous profession for dogs, some of whom are misled into poisoned traps by rival hunters eager to protect their turf at all costs.
The filmmakers are on more textured and rugged terrain when taking in the strange communion between quixotic old men and their canine pals/meal tickets and observing those symbiotic partnerships at work. They hit their melancholy sweet spot with the curious relationship between Aurelio and his best friend, business partner, and fur-child, Birba. What starts as a warm-hearted portrait of a stubborn artisan who loves his dog and refuses to share either his knowledge or his life with anyone but her gradually becomes an oddly fraught story of succession and dread about the future, a minor-key riff on King Lear about a dying old king--albeit a childless one--anxious to ensure the future survival of his kingdom before he goes. So what if his kingdom happens to be a dog? Programme: Special Events