Hounds and Hogs, Men and Truffles

Sony Pictures Classics.

Among the most alluring of cross-species collaborations is truffle hunting, a pursuit that brings dog—or, more rarely these days, pig—together with man. Women, it seems, are as uncommon as swine in this field. Unearthing culinary black gold provides a minimal livelihood for both two- and four-legged beasts, but two recent movies—The Truffle Hunters and PIG, set respectively in the Italian Piedmont and the Pacific Northwest—want to tell us that the quest for the underground fungus is about much more than the money the delicacy commands.

Both films seem prescient, though the pandemic renders many things so.  These foragers live a life mostly isolated from society. Both canines and humans are happiest in the forest scrabbling for their quarry.

Less appetizing for them is the business side of things. Ruthless buyers have to be dealt with, but their grinding tactics and false friendships leave a bitter taste. Big landowners are intent on keeping the truffle hunters off their estates, lacing the terrain with poison for the unsuspecting dogs. Fame-crazed restaurateurs squeeze the hunters, who see only the thinnest shavings from the outrageously inflated proceeds generated by the truffles as they make their way up the supply chain from dirt to auction to the bone china plates of fat-cat gourmands.

The truffle hunters need only the basics to keep themselves going:  gas for banged up vehicles that struggle over muddy woodland tracks; food; a roof over their heads. They care little for what happens to, and what profits are made by, the aromatic fruit of their labors. They have no interest in the details of the elaborate entertainment enacted for, and on, the palates of the rich. Our denizens of rural hillsides and valleys are happy to be free from fetish food culture and the delusions of material wealth.

I took in the documentary The Truffle Hunters back in May while staying with my mother on Bainbridge Island directly across from Seattle.  I hadn’t seen her for a year-and-a-half and our movie night was her first “cultural” outing from her apartment since the start of the pandemic.

The film was showing in the movie theater at the island’s “historic” Lynwood Center, a faux-Tudor commercial enclave from the 1930s at the south end of the then-rural island. During my youth in the 70s and 80s the place was run-down, but it still sustained the cinema, a hair stylist, a restaurant, and a sad grocery store. The now-renovated old theater, where I got the last seat in the house in 1977 for Star Wars on its first night showing on the island, provided a nostalgic place to watch the clever, melancholic, class-conscious truffle documentary.

My family used to forage in the abandoned orchards at the disused army base near the theater, and also clam and pick blackberries in that neck of the wood.  Since those days, Microsoft, Amazon, Costco, Starbucks and the other Seattle companies that have changed the world have sent a tidal wave of money ripping through the Puget Sound. Across from the old Lynnwood Centre, a neo-faux-Tudor complex has lately sprung up. Water features gurgle through weedless mini-laws and flower beds that separate the outdoor diners at brew pub and oyster bar from their nearby Teslas. Luxury eco-homes proceed in geometrically up the hillside. This is no longer a place for foraging.

Prescience and nostalgia, and countless other details that mourn the past and foretell the future are served up The Truffle Hunters. Yet the film’s 84-minute running never feels overstuffed or frantic, even during the shots from the dog-cam racing through the trees and piling into their human companion’s wagon.

This is a short movie with a great affection for the long, static take. An obstinate and arthritic octogenarian whispers sweet nothings to his dog for minutes on end. He wants to make sure she’s looked after if he goes first. Outside his house he sings an old-time song accompanied by a friend on the accordion:  the tune takes a few minutes, but we’re in now hurry. We are in the country.

Another truffle hunter puts his fully equipped drum-set outside his place and bashes away.  There are no complaints from the geriatric hills. The old folks in the distant houses are probably hard of hearing anyway.

There is a long shot of that point where the diverse forest meets modern monoculture:  the vineyards march over the hills in military formation, leaving fewer and fewer hectares for trees and truffles.

A distant shot of a forager and buyer making their deal in icy mist illuminated by the headlights of the cars reveals all about the economics. The buyer refers darkly to market forces and the incursions of Russians into the truffle game. The hunter gets less than he expected and needs.

Another old man loves his dog more than his wife. She tries to keep him from venturing into the evermore dangerous and depleted woods. He sneaks out through the window for another adventure. So what if it is his last?  The courtyard of his farmhouse has those ubiquitous white plastic chairs stacked along the wall. Globalization has long arrived in the rural Piedmont, its forces felt, if not understood, by those born between the wars.  No great family feasts are underway at the farmstead or are likely to be held soon. This is a region without children or grandchildren.  It is a film about old men and dogs. Only at the end do we see, at last, a wealthy little girl eating pasta shaved truffles with her gourmet, truffle-dealing dad. She giggles with pleasure—or maybe just silliness at her own slurping.

The soundtrack by Ed Cortes (who masterfully scored the Brazilian epic, City of God in 2002) makes the transitions between the places of rural adventure with wry barcaroles, the music working to lighten the gathering elegiac gloom. Cortes well-crafted cues are garnished and glazed with Italian opera and pop numbers when a touch of regret or spice is called for.

The music made by the real people in the film reminds us to love what we do when we do it: sing and drum and dance.

Whereas The Truffle Hunters lofts its critique of economic exploitation and environmental destruction with a wink and smile, PIG mostly frowns.  I watched this one yesterday here in Ithaca, New York—my first trip to the local art house, Cinemapolis, since the pandemic began. This theater moved from its basement locale more than a decade ago and carved out a new building in a long parking garage just off the main street. That garage is now being demolished, the cinema emerging from the rubble like an alba truffle.

PIG stars Nicholas Cage as a legendary Portland chef who, grieving, has fled his profession to hunt truffles in the evergreens. He is dirty, bedraggled and bearded. His pig, in contrast to the man, looks like she has just returned from a spa and stylist, not spent a decade in the moss and mud.

The city comes calling and kidnaps the sow. Loose-cannon Cage must track down his oinking partner through Portland’s  mean streets and upscale eateries, which are sent up in one set-piece that squeals too gleefully its own absurdities.  Will Cage exact his revenge with fist and firepower as some of the guffawing and belching thirty-something men in the audience, likely fans of the Cage of Ghost Rider, might have hoped?  Or will he fight back with his most devastating recipes, the arsenal that once propelled him to the top of Portland’s locally-sourced food scene?

The movie’s music by Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein Philip is earnest, all grainy cello tones and portentous drones.  A benediction comes with a very Portlandesque singer-songwriter heard as if from heaven. The movie finds its biggest targets as easily as the pig its truffles, but other questions and quests remain obscure, open-ended, unanswered, unresolved—and therefore far more compelling.

From this cinematic menu, order the PIG first, then savor the Truffle Hunters as your bittersweet dessert.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com