In villages in the hill country of extreme northwestern Italy life moves slowly, and can seem to revolve around an elite corps with names like Nina, Birba, Pepe, Leo and Siana, Tina and Jeri, Fiona and Titina.
They are the adored dogs with the million Euro noses, “The Truffle Hunters.”
Sure, their human partners are the ones who finish digging up the fungal morsels that assorted mutts and hounds locate. The old men clean the truffles with care, sell them to intermediaries who either offer them directly to restaurants, or auction their finds off. At 4500 Euros per kilogram and up, those affairs take on a Sotheby’s air.
But the dogs — coddled and nuzzled, rewarded and protected — are the stars of this charming and intimate slice-of-life documentary by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw.
One fellow and his dogs have celebratory sing-alongs on the ride home from a fruitful day in the gloomy mud of early spring. His ancient Suzuki SUV saw its best days decades before, but the dogs are pampered, in the tub with him at home, cleaning off the day’s work.
Birbi gets a birthday cake. Fiona gets a rub behind the ears and cooing words of thanks. Nina is confided in. Because “If you don’t trust your dogs, you shouldn’t go truffle hunting.”
The codgers bump into each other in the woods and bitch about the “greedy” competitive nature of truffle hunting these days. They have to worry that about some resentful redneck leaving poisoned bait out to kill their dogs and thus gain a perceived edge.
“Why would they do that to the dogs?” one hunter’s companion cries. “They’re innocent!”
“Truffle Hunters” takes in a little of the root (they’re a fungus that grows on tree roots) to table life of this delicacy, the wheeling and dealing of direct sales and an auction. We see them served on this mouth-watering dish or in that one.
But mostly, this is dogs and men in the woods, the old men comparing life with a good dog to marriage, with their canine companions having the edge. And yes, most of the men we meet here aren’t married.
As one 84 year-old veteran of the forests around San Damiano d’Asti endures the pleas of a younger man who begs him, in Italian (with English subtitles), “Can you tell me your secret spots?” and replies “Never, NEVER,” you have to wonder how the filmmakers ever got close enough to these adorable curmudgeons to film the magic as it happens.
My guess? They told them, “Hey, we want to make a movie about your dogs.”
MPA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language (profanity)
Cast: Sergio Cauda, Paolo Stacchini, Carlo Gondola, Pierro Botto, Enrico Crippa
Credits: Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:24