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Columns Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘The Truffle Hunters’ – a documentary on ‘joy of looking’ for truffles

A scene from "The Truffle Hunters"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

It’s a rare film that can turn an adjective like “dank” into a compliment, but “The Truffle Hunters” is that film. Otherworldly and breathtakingly lovely, Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck’s documentary about the world of truffles – buying, selling, tasting and, most importantly, finding them – could well be subtitled “The Joy of Looking.”

A poster of the documentary – “The Truffle Hunters”

The filmmakers take us into the fairy tale world of Northern Italy where primordial forests host old men and their remarkable dogs on their hunt for the elusive white Alba truffle, a fungal delicacy that can sell for thousands. Because the truffle has stubbornly refused domestic cultivation, there’s no such thing as a farm-raised truffle; they’re all free range (so to speak).

Which is why, for hundreds of years, men with dogs have hunted them in the hushed twilight, against a surreal landscape worthy of  “Pan’s Labyrinth.”  The movie’s pace is slow and evocative, more suited to Grandfather clocks than Apple watches.

However, it’s not without humor. An elderly hunter’s stern spouse could’ve been plucked from Central Casting, Italian Harridan Division. Another man’s relationship with his dog is so endearing that, when he worries about what will become of the animal after he dies, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry or both.  And in an ornate gem of a country church, the local priest blesses man and canine, assuring them there will be truffle hunting in the afterlife.

Yet for all its painterly astonishments – scene after scene seems lifted from Caravaggio, Rembrandt or Vermeer – the film’s flip side is almost a parody of a Mafia flick.  We are in Italy after all, and we are dealing in a very precious item (even if it does look like dried dung).

On the one hand, there is a truffle auction, where the, um, pricey lump sits on a red-velvet cushion, like some Bizarro World Faberge Egg (one wonders, is there such a thing as “a truffle fluffer?”). On the other, we see men gather surreptitiously on dark streets, making deals, talking about “respect” and “territory.”

A scene from “The Truffle Hunters”

There’s also Mob-like danger. Nobody puts a horse’s head in someone’s bed, but veteran hunters are hounded about their secret spots, and unscrupulous competitors stoop to poisoning top dogs.

“The Truffle Hunters” is a decidedly eccentric movie about decidedly eccentric men and as such, may only appeal to a decidedly eccentric audience. But there’s simply something magical here, something redolent of wet earth and old ways, of ancient bonds and beloved dogs.

In other words, it’s all pretty hard to resist if you’ll just give it a chance. Never mind the fast and the furious. Embrace the secretive and serene.

“The Truffle Hunters” opens in metro Atlanta theaters this Friday – May 7.

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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