The Truffle Hunters – movie as portraiture

BEFORE WE GET any further: Italian white truffles are more marvelously aromatic than the French black, and have resisted cultivation, unlike the latter.

Many years before white truffles fetched several thousand dollars per kilogram, I found “the truffle man”, as promised, hanging around the square in Castellina in Chianti. He pulled the fungi from his overcoat pockets, and we negotiated.

Being winter with the car windows closed, for a few kilometers the stink made me fear I had been conned. But that suddenly swapped to triumph, and the scent wafted through our ancient mill for days.

Admittedly, I treated them too skimpily, compared to a subsequent restaurant bowl of tagliatelle completely covered by better-quality truffle shavings, so that the warmth lifted the vapours.

Perhaps people who catch the new movie, The Truffle Hunters, filmed around Alba in northern Italy, will divide in two – those who do not appreciate what the fuss is about, and those who do. But I am being too precious – black truffles can be good (Lièvre à la royale is sublime), even artificial “truffle oil” gives the idea, and the new movie certainly communicates their desirability.

The Truffle Hunters (2020)
The Truffle Hunters

Admitting to not having appreciated truffles when treated to them at a restaurant, and declaring The Truffle Hunters more about old men and their dogs than old men and their truffles, the Guardian reviewer Peter Bradshaw nevertheless sums it up: “A strange, funny, mysterious and rather beautiful film”.

It is no documentary, more a work of art. In place of voice-overs, interviews and facts, the movie poses one or another truffle hunter in a carefully-chosen setting for a single, beautifully-lit shot. The hunter talks with another hunter, or with his dog, his dealer, his broken-down typewriter or, in one case, his wife.

In place of any fly-on-the-wall pretence (as in Honeyland), the movie employs the studied gaze of the portrait painter. Breaking up the sequence of canvasses, the camera occasionally follows a hunter and his dog(s) searching the woods, and digging up the prize. Once or twice, the static approach gives way even more frenetically to a camera strapped to a dog racing through the undergrowth.

By way of another contrast with cagey old men with their loyal dogs and hard-won, nobbly finds, dealers are shown attracting much fancier prices than they pass on. A cushion is carried past the pews and placed between two large bottles of wine on a secular altar, where a massive truffle is later displayed for photographers. In one glorious vignette, supported by Puccini, a dealer eats a truffled egg dish.

The portraitist’s art is more than finding a good likeness, and the “more” makes for Bradshaw’s strangeness, mystery and beauty. This self-possessed movie acknowledges independent cinema luminary Caroline Libresco as “spiritual advisor”.

3 thoughts on “The Truffle Hunters – movie as portraiture

  1. You’ve done so much else, Rob!
    I was surprised, searching “truffles”, how many Sydney outlets offer them. One seller quoted $8500 per kg last season for white truffles from “Europe”… You’d want to be assured of origin, quality, and freshness (although “fresh” is not the first word to use for the aroma!). You don’t need anything near a kilogram, and black should be cheaper. While we’re too late (March 2021) for the northern hemisphere season, our chance at Australian-grown black truffles arrives with winter. Australia has a huge variety of indigenous, truffle-like fungi, but we’re speaking about European trees being inoculated with French spores in the hope of the “gourmet” black truffles at the roots. The cheapest experience comes from “truffle oil”, which is always “in season”, being synthetic.

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