Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 14, 2021)
As a 54-year-old, I recall precious few movies in which truffles became an important factor. Actually, I can’t think of any prior to 2021, so while I’m sure they exist, none come to mind.
Bizarrely, summer 2021 brought not one but two flicks in that vein. Here I’ll look at the first of the pair, a documentary called The Truffle Hunters.
Northern Italy acts as the only place in the world where conditions allow for the growth of the rare white Alba truffle. Precious few beings know how to locate and excavate this food item.
In this location, a small group of elderly “truffle hunters” and their canine detectives pursue the Alba. They operate only at night and resist urges to spread their knowledge beyond their small clan.
When I first saw a trailer for Hunters, I immediately decided never to see it. This occurred partly because of the subject matter, as the notion of a movie about old dudes who sneak around the Italian woods didn’t sound appealing.
However, the main reason for my negative reaction stemmed from the annoying, incessant cries of “Carlo!” from an old lady. She really got on my nerves, and when you tossed in some cloying accordion music, the whole thing played like a parody of some whimsical Italian film more than an engaging story.
So what changed my mind? Good reviews primarily, but the eventual realization that Hunters offered a documentary instead of the fictional narrative I initially expected to get.
Though not a traditional documentary, as Hunters comes with a decidedly loose framework. Unlike most films of this sort, we get no narration to interpret what we see, and we receive no real background.
This means we learn about the truffle trade only in an incidental manner via various interactions, and we pick up minor tidbits about the characters. Heck, the movie doesn’t even identify any of the participants, so other than poor Carlo, we don’t know the names of those involved.
In theory, I appreciate this unconventional approach to the material. The style of Hunters gives it an unusual tone that seems like it could pay off in the end.
But it doesn’t. Instead, I continually wished we’d get something more concise and better focused than the loose, nearly random collection of footage on display.
When I go into a documentary, I hope to leave with a better understanding of the subject matter than I boasted when the program began. In the case of Hunters, this proved accurate, but that occurred more because I knew absolutely zilch about truffles and their pursuit than due to the film’s ability to inform.
Presumably the filmmakers preferred an experiential “fly on the wall” approach. They hoped to let us live in the shoes of the characters without the separation that formal documentary techniques would offer.
I guess this works to some degree, as the approach makes Hunters feel more personal than otherwise might be the case. However, the refusal to identify the participants and give us any real backstories or insights into their lives cancels any first person sense that might occur.
Honestly, Hunters often feels like a first draft of a documentary. It comes across like the directors compiled footage and meant to go back and add narration but never got around to it
This means we end up with lots of loosely connected footage of Carlo and the other unnamed characters but not much real information. We spend endless shots on nonsense like Carlo and his wife as they sort tomatoes but we find little that really allows us to sense what makes the participants tick.
All of this creates a sporadically intriguing but mostly frustrating documentary. If you like an “art house” approach to the topic, you might enjoy this, but the lack of insight or substance makes it a tough watch for me.
By the way, Carlo’s wife comes across as annoying, just like I expected. At least she doesn’t take up as much of the film’s running time as I inferred from the trailer.