I am not what they call “a foodie.” If I was, I might have known what an Alba truffle was before seeing a movie about where they grow, how they’re found, and who finds them.

I’d venture to guess, though, that this confession will also reveal something about my economic status. As The Truffle Hunters reveals, Alba truffles are rare wonders that are sold at high prices and, if they’re big enough, auctioned off for a fortune, simply so they can be shaved delicately over plates of gourmet cuisine. I’m a teacher who isn’t paid enough to live in the city he teaches in, so… no wonder I’ve never heard of the Alba truffle before!

A different kind of scavenger hunt: a truffle hunter and his dogs in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]
Consider me newly educated thanks to this intriguing documentary from filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. I was fascinated by this curious species called truffle hunters — almost as much as I was fascinated by the humans who let them off their leashes. I’m kidding, of course: The title refers to the curious, competitive men who have made it their mission in life to know where the best truffles grow, get to them first, and get them into the pipeline so they’ll end up in the bellies of the rich. Dweck and Kershaw, aided mightily by drone-mounted cameras, give us God’s-eye perspectives dense, damp forests in Northern Italy’s Piedmont region, a wilderness that is breathtaking when dusted with snow. These aerial views look at first like Jackson Pollock paintings, but then we zoom in and notice movement: dogs, and then a man, foraging among the roots of the trees.

While I still don’t know what truffles taste like, I now know what it’s like to dig for them, how heavily this industry depends on the sophisticated snouts of certain dogs, and how deadly this discipline can be for those same dogs. And the movie is exhilarating whenever we’re given, via GoPro cameras, the point of view of the bounding, barking dogs as they scanning currents of air for Alba truffle signals.

GoPro on Doggo! [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]
But Dweck and Kershaw are most interested in providing intimate portraiture of four idiosyncratic truffle hunters. And that, for me, is where the film falls short.

In her Washington Post review, Ann Hornaday compares The Truffle Hunters to 2019’s Honeyland, a documentary that I found enthralling for how it invited us into the lives of one extraordinary beekeeper and the elderly mother she devotedly served. Jordan Raup at The Film Stage makes the same comparison, and he raves about the hunters as having “so much personality, joy, and life in them.”

While I can see some basic similarities between the two films, I think there are substantial differences in matters that really count — and that’s why The Truffle Hunters isn’t likely to end up on my annual top ten list like Honeyland did. Sure, this movie reveals a similarly remote and unfamiliar world, one that sometimes seems timeless and enchanted. But Honeyland found a compelling narrative, and we became invested in the survival and success of its remarkable beekeeper and her ancient, suffering mother. By contrast, these hunters, while entertaining at first in their eccentricity, ultimately remain stubbornly and annoyingly opaque. Their pasts are uninvestigated. Their lives beyond the hunt are enigmatic. And the single-mindedness of their obsession — well, I found it more exasperating than amusing.

A perfect marriage? A truffle hunter murmurs sweet nothings to the secret of his success. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

One spends most of his down time ignoring his wife’s relentless — and well-founded — complaints and concerns. One talks to and feeds treats to his dog obsessively. One thrashes at a drum set in the great outdoors — for therapy, it seems. One has given up truffle hunting in disillusionment over the corruption of the industry and the violations of personal and professional boundaries, and now he spends his time furiously typing rants about his gripes with culture in general — including, of all things, the lost art of… undressing women? The film comes a little too close to making caricatures of each one, as if they might find fuller lives in a Christopher Guest mockumentary (which, I admit, I would watch). I don’t want to go so far as to say the filmmakers are being patronizing (but that’s exactly the term used by Simon Abrams at RogerEbert.com). Perhaps they went hunting for treasure in this promising context and this was the best they could come up with. But I can’t help but imagine what we might have learned about them, or how we might have loved them, had someone with the curiosity of Agnes Varda been behind the camera.

A truffle hunter bathes — and blow dries! — his dog. Do not try this at home! [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

What’s more, I was surprised at the lack of subtext as the film unfolded. This subject matter is glowing with poetic promise. All of the pieces for a meaningful portrait of a corrupt industry are here: The wealthy who spend fortunes to taste rare fungi dug up by dogs from the earth. The judges who have devoted their lives to a particular delicacy and have noses — literally — for the good stuff. The go-betweens, agents who find the talented hunters and apply just enough pressure to get the best of them without burning them out. The hunters themselves who take pride in what they do well, but who really depend on their talented dogs for finding their best discoveries. And the dogs, born with good noses, eager to make their masters happy, and asking so very little in return. It all volunteers to be read as representative of any artistic adventure being spoiled by the cruelty of competitive commerce. It could have been a documentary equivalent of my favorite television series of the last decade: Detectorists. Who could ask for a better metaphor, the vocabulary of truffle-hunting as a way expressing humankind’s common search for the sublime?

Like a villain of commerce in a Terry Gilliam dystopia, the Master of Truffles sniffs at the fruits of the hunters’ harvest. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

And, to their credit, the filmmakers seem to be somewhat curious about the great divide between the wealthy dealers of prize truffles, men in suits who live in apparent luxury, and the troubles of the men who are pressured into digging up more and more to the point that they become trespassers. (Worse, their determination turns others into dog-poisoners.) There’s something of a commentary on exploitation here; it’s just not particularly detailed or enlightening. And I can’t escape a vague discomfort, as if there might be a touch of exploitation in the filmmaking as well.

Anyway, The Truffle Hunters offers a pleasant 84 minutes in the woods with some good dogs. And now I know what a dog sees when, wet with rain and mud, it shakes itself off.