Of Dogs and Men (and Aging)

Review by Professor Robert Abrams, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York
Review of The Truffle Hunters (directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, Italy, 2020), available from Amazon Prime

The Truffle Hunters is a subtle, cinematically beautiful documentary, drawn from the personal stories of a group of aging Italian truffle hunters. Taken together, these stories celebrate the relationships between the older men and their much-loved dogs. Emphasis is placed on the intensifying human need for companionship and connection in the later decades of life, applicable even to individuals who have long avoided traditional familial ties. The Alba truffle, having a genetic but still distant relationship to ordinary mushrooms, is an elusive, highly prized gourmet delicacy equally sought after for its monetary value. The search for premium-grade truffles is referenced repeatedly over the course of the narrative, but this film is mainly about the truffle hunters themselves, both human and canine; it is also about the circumstances and conditions that are conducive to well-being in older age.

 

Most of the film’s truffle hunters are in their 70s to late 80s, comprising an all-Italian cast, including Piero Botto, Carlo Gonella, Sergio Cauda, and Aurelio Conterno. For these men, with their accumulated years of life experience, it is the excitement of truffle-hunting with their dogs in the alluring Piedmont forests that gives them satisfaction and purpose. They are invigorated also by the discovery and treasuring of their personal caches, the financial rewards from which have become secondary to them. Consequently, the truffle hunters resist pressure to give away their secret locations to the avaricious younger businessmen or family members who are waiting impatiently for them to die.

The film itself is loosely structured, alternating between vignettes of the truffle-hunting world, including glimpses of the hard-edged business it engenders, and depictions of the deepening ties between the hunters and their canine assistants. Viewers are led to appreciate how the affection between living creatures–in this instance the truffle hunters and their dogs– contributes so much to the attainment of well-being in these men.

The truffle hunters are seen to share food with their dogs and confide in them, disclosing secrets of the heart that they will never reveal to others. If the dogs cannot process the exact import of the “come to Daddy” endearments addressed to them, they nevertheless seem to absorb their meaning by repetition, and they also respond to the sound, speed, volume, and loving tone of human voices. The dogs’ exuberance and unquestioning trust combine to create a tonic stimulant effect, fortifying men whose energy would otherwise be waning; and the dogs’ attentive presence offers an effective antidote to loneliness in old age.

At several points in the film the camera appears to have been in some way attached to the dogs. Viewers can then directly appreciate the canine’s point of view as the dogs breathlessly seek out the scent of truffles. They are filled with vitality and exhilaration, jumping about from behind the passenger seats as they watch their owners drive their vehicles into the forest. The dogs’ names are used repeatedly throughout, more frequently than the names of their owners, highlighting their unique identities and personalities—Birba, Biri, Charlie, Fiona, Nina, Titina, and Yani. At the end of the film the dogs are credited as a group but also individually. Titina has even been blessed by the village priest.

Meanwhile, humans are made aware, sometimes unwillingly, of their declining powers. Carlo, for example, is repeatedly warned by his wife that searching for truffles in the dark of night, even accompanied by Titina, has become hazardous at his age. But Carlo laughs, shrugs, and persists.

Ticking clocks and pealing church bells in the background underscore the passage of time. Future planning is becoming a serious matter for the care of the film’s dogs because of the age of their masters and their growing awareness of impending death. One of several unmarried and childless truffle hunters tells his dog, Birba, that he is actively seeking a relationship with a woman who would be able take care of him when he is no longer around. After all, he explains to Birba, at his age he may in the not-too-distant future have to “go to America”—a distinctly odd but unmistakable euphemism for dying.

What is significant is that Birba’s owner is now creating a legacy, seeking to leave his dog after his own death in a suitable environment, one that he has carefully considered and thoughtfully selected. Birba has contributed contentment and purpose to his owner’s life, and what will happen after his death is now of the greatest importance to him. In another scene, a younger man in the lucrative truffle trade who is seeking to benefit from an experienced dog’s hunting skills, offers a signed blank check to buy Birba. He receives the sarcastic response that the transaction would require a parallel purchase of one of his children.

Of course, this milieu, like any other, has aspects of envy, greed, and cruelty. The possibility of dramatic, tragic outcomes is accentuated by a devastatingly melancholic aria from Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Tosca, that plays briefly in the film’s soundtrack.1 Although harvesting truffles was never intended to be the kind of hunting that involves loss of life, some unprincipled competitors for the prime areas have been setting invisible strychnine-poisoned traps to kill their rivals’ dogs. In one scene a truffle hunter weeps quietly in a state of grief and shock as his cherished companion lies motionless a few feet away.

For their owners, the intentionally killed dogs are wrenching, irreplaceable losses. This depiction of grief and loss in late life is reminiscent of a scene from Disgrace,2 the 2000 novel by J.M. Coetzee that chronicles the sinister and lawless immediate post-Apartheid years in South Africa. In one of the book’s memorable sections, a naïve older professor’s beloved dog is stolen to be sold for the commercial value of its breed. The professor, utterly lost without his companion, spends days thereafter searching for him, plaintively calling out his name.

The Truffle Hunters, however, does not close on such notes of sadness and futility. In the final scene, the irrepressible Carlo, seeking to avoid a confrontation with his wife, sneaks out of his house for another round of nighttime truffle-hunting with Titina. Despite its genial ending and flashes of humor, this is still a mostly earnest film. Its viewers are continually impressed with the depth, mutuality, and singular alchemy of love between men and their dogs. The truffle hunters have come to their later years with wisdom, life values and a strong sense of personal integrity that are unshaken by a culture of materialism, or by the existential despair that, looming within, threatens to envelop their aging peers.

 

References

[1] E Lucevan Le Stelle (And the Stars Were Shining) from Tosca. Words and music by Giacomo Puccini. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-AF1T4OehM>.

[2] Coetzee JM. Disgrace. New York, Penguin Books, 2000.

 

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