The Truffle Hunters M, 84 minutes, 4 stars
In the opening birds-eye shot above a damp, tangled forest in Piedmont, the camera is too high to show what is happening beneath. Until we home in on a man and his dogs hunting for truffles down below. It is an exquisite start to this documentary about the age-old tradition of hunting for the prized white Alba truffle, found only in this mountainous region of northern Italy.
The Alba truffle has defied science, bless it. It appears this rare fungus has not yet disclosed its secrets, and cannot be cultivated. Although it is surely only a matter of time before these secrets are revealed, the scientists had better get their skates on. The Truffle Hunters suggests that the elderly men who know how to harvest them are a dying breed.
The focus of the doco, written and directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, is on four truffle hunters. One of whom is retired, a dissenter resisting efforts to get him back in the game.
Each of the men uses dogs. Dogs need to be trained but at least they don't eat the truffles when they find them, as pigs apparently do.
One of the touching things revealed here is the symbiosis between the men and their dogs. Other "man's best friend" movies have nothing on this, in which a truffle hunter shares a bath with his dog, even giving him a back rub. Another shares his dinner table with his dog, even allowing it to lick the plate.
Yet another, Carlo, would prefer, it seems, to spend his evening hunting for truffles rather than share it with his wife. The 87-year-old, a youthful, quiet soul, seems to prefer rambling through the oaks and hazelnuts accompanied by the dulcet sound of the night owls.
A fourth man, Angelo, has retired from the game altogether. He's a former acrobat with a juicy romantic past he likes to tease us with and has to fend off agents who want him to share his prized specialist knowledge before taking it to the grave. He became fed up with how consumer greed affected his livelihood and killed his dogs.
To alleviate the tensions and stresses that he endures, Sergio, a younger man, takes his anger and frustration out while playing drums. His second dog is poisoned during the course of the film, and he looks into buying his dog a muzzle. Perhaps it's the only way to spare it.
Specialist knowledge is something the men refuse to share, despite being harassed for it.
Aurelio has never married and has no children, but at 84 won't share the prized knowledge that he is likely to take with him to the grave. He wants to find someone to look after his dog, Birba, when he goes but it's hard to imagine he will.
The contrast drawn between the old truffle hunters and the agents they supply is sharply drawn. There is a scene where a key intermediary enjoys fried eggs topped with shaved truffle with a glass of red.
As the still camera watches him eat head on, the gastronomic experience could hardly look less appealing.
Another scene in which prospective buyers file past a big, regal truffle to sniff its aroma is a gently humorous take on the hallowed ritual of truffle culture.
The film has elected to examine the role of the truffle hunter, fast disappearing.
But it does not dwell so much the other side of the equation, the consumers, like "the president" referred to in one early scene.
The people who drive the insane prices for these epicurean curios are largely unseen.
At least acquiring truffles doesn't involve killing an entire animal.
The writer-directors, who are also the cinematographers, have recorded almost everything with a stationary camera in a series of beautifully framed shots where the movement occurs only in the frame.
There is a funny exception. Midway, there are a number of scenes filmed from the perspective of the dogs, scampering through the forest, sniffing the ground for the tell-tale pungent scent as they go.
This exquisitely made , humorous doco is as light as air and, like its subject, an eccentric rarity.