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The Truffle Hunters review – rich and earthy meditation on a dying tradition

Director duo Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw offer up a gorgeous and evocative portrait of ageing truffle hunters in Italy

In northernmost Italy’s Piedmont province, the delicate Alba white truffle can be found in areas of luscious forest. This food is the black gold at the heart of The Truffle Hunters, first-time director duo Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary meditation on ageing, tradition, and the changing face of capitalism. Dwek and Kershaw film the forest like a fungi, dotted colours made up of bushes and branches swirl across the screen. In a long aerial shot, dogs locate the edible treasure, before a hunter pushes his hounds’ faces away with a muddy hand, pulling truffles from the ground.

The earthy tones of the hunt itself is contrasted with the dullness of clinically shot scenes back in civilisation, where a flash tradesman speaks on the phone with unseen corporate clients. The global capital sheen of “fine dining” has stripped the character from individual eateries, and the process of finding the truffles is growing ever rarer, as the numbers of men who know the secrets of where, when, and how to hunt are dwindling. All aged between seventy and eighty, they refuse to teach their ways to young apprentices, so the price of the goods has skyrocketed. There is no passing of the torch of tradition.

Most scenes unfold in a single, unbroken take, leaving us to wonder what's scripted, and what isn’t. This strategy doesn’t hold the viewer at arms length, though, like a lot of festival documentaries, but draws us in close through the precisely framed human behaviours that Kershaw and Dwek capture. Surely this must be artificial, we ask, watching an old hunter celebrate his little dog's birthday by sitting the Good Boy up at the dinner table to share a cake? Dwek and Kershaw are none too interested in providing the answers.

It is a whimsical view of the region, and also a showcase for the extraordinary cinematography these directors – who also shot the film – have captured. Straight-faced activities, from throwing grapes into a vat to chatting with a glass of wine, have the spiritual intensity and interplay of shadow with light of a Vermeer painting. Each shot is presented with extreme depth, a glowing hue that picks up objects and lines on skin with extraordinary detail. While Truffle Hunters does engage with the political interplay of wealth and tradition, these elements are kept below the surface. It is first and foremost a placid evocation of the area.

Half an hour into this 84-minute feature, Truffle Hunters grants viewers a glorious dog’s eye view shot, go-pro camera attached to one canine head as it runs through the forest, looking for goodies. This miraculous scene echoes a line overheard later in the film: “The scent is all that matters.” To find the truffle, and merrily consume it at such exorbitant prices, is about an essence and state of mind rather than something truly tangible. And so, Truffle Hunters gives over to its centrepiece scene: the consumption of truffle grated onto fondue and fried egg, one transcendent moment in a film that's rich with them.

The Truffle Hunters is showing in cinemas from 9 July.

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