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'The Truffle Hunters' Is On The 2021 Oscar Shortlist

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the films on the short list for the Oscars is called "The Truffle Hunters." It's a documentary. It follows a group of men, some in their 80s, who, with the help of their dogs, scavenge for truffles deep in the forests of northern Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Italian).

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG YIPPING)

INSKEEP: The man in this scene pulls something from the dirt, could be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Our film critic Kenneth Turan joins us to talk about this documentary. Hey there, Ken.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve. Good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: What makes these solitary men in the woods work as subjects for a film?

TURAN: Well, their life is so fascinating, and they're so deeply into it. It's amazing the fidelity these men have to it, how much it means to their lives, how they go about it. It's like being dropped into a part of the world that we never knew existed. But it's really fascinating to see how it unfolds.

INSKEEP: They're essentially treasure hunting. Are they secretive about where they go and what they look for?

TURAN: They're beyond secretive. I mean, they lie to each other. They mislead each other. These truffle hunters have territories in northern Italy - you know, near the towns that they live in - that have - they've kind of mined for truffles for decades. And they don't want anyone else to know about them.

And as truffles go up in value on the international market, more and more people want to know where these truffles are, and these men will not tell them. There's a scene in the film where one of the men basically says to someone who's trying to get the information from him, I don't care. You know, eat your heart out; it's going to die with me.

INSKEEP: And some of these men are not very far from death, we should add. But I would ask you, if they mislead each other, which is something that makes it really dramatic for a documentary, how did a documentary film crew manage to get permission to follow them around?

TURAN: It wasn't easy. The men who made the film, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, spent around three years in this area, gradually getting to know these men. They actually did some filming and showed the men what they were doing, showing the men the observational nature of the filmmaking. And these people agreed to let them in. I think it was the sincerity of their interest and the amount of time they spent in this region that finally won people over.

INSKEEP: I gather the dogs also cooperated, too, eventually.

TURAN: Oh, my God. The dogs are amazing. The dogs get credited in the final credit by name. And these men - you know, it's the dogs that really find the truffles. And these men are devoted to their dogs. They're scenes of them - you know, they eat with their dogs. There's a scene where one of the truffle hunters gives the dog a birthday cake with a candle on it, you know, when it's the dog's birthday. Most of these men are single. They don't live with anyone. Their deepest emotional connection is to their dogs.

INSKEEP: So I'm thinking about these gentlemen from an older generation who are pursuing this occupation that seems like it's from another time entirely. What does their story tell us in our world?

TURAN: Well, one of the things it tells us is that these things that have gone on for generations are going away. Big money has changed this business. One of the really sad, tragic things that happened is that in order to get these old timers out of the way, people are poisoning their dogs. You know, and there's a very moving scene where a man has to deal with the fact that his dog has been poisoned.

And you see the big money. There's a part of the film where you see the middlemen. You see the connoisseurs. You see these truffles that these men sell for not very much money being sold for tens of thousands of euros. There's a real gap between the rich and the poor in this film. And I think, you know, that is continually a lesson for us.

INSKEEP: Ken, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

TURAN: Oh, thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION, and this movie is "The Truffle Hunters." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.