What a Quirky Documentary About Truffles Can Teach Us About Purpose

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We don’t review documentaries that much at Plugged In. Let’s be honest: We stay plenty busy as it is. But I still watch some all the same. And every once in a while, I run across one that I feel might be worth talking to you about.

The Truffle Hunters, which is playing at some art houses across the country, is such a film. In fact, I’d call it a bit of a hidden gem—which seems only appropriate, given that searching for buried treasure is what the movie is built on.

Ostensibly, those hidden treasures are truffles—fungi that grow underground and are considered a high-priced delicacy. The truffles in question are Alba truffles, which grow in northern Italy just a few months out of the year. They’re not quite worth their weight in gold, but it’s closer than you might think: In the movie, good quality truffles are literally put on pedestals and sold for thousands of euros. On the internet, you can buy a pound of Alba truffles for a mere $4,000-6,000.

But the movie’s not called The Truffles: It’s called The Truffle Hunters, and the lens focuses on the quirky men who take their specially trained dogs and go out digging for these pricey mushrooms.

Most of the men we meet here are old. One is 87 and loves to hunt truffles at night, which drives his worried wife crazy. And most of these guys kvetch about how ruthless the profession has become. We hear about how some competitors leave poison in forests rich with truffles, in order to kill off other hunters’ talented, trained dogs. (One such dog eats a poison trap off camera, with tragic consequences. His owner is nearly inconsolable.)

I write about three spiritual lessons that The Truffle Hunters can teach us at my Watching God blog, but here I wanted to talk about a fourth lesson—one a little less tangible, in a way, but I one I think is really important.

As I mentioned, the truffles are truly buried treasures—something precious that you literally need to dig for. We learn that these truffles are so valuable that people are willing to cheat and even kill for them. But yet when we see those who know the monetary value of these truffles—the middlemen who buy and sell them, those who eat them on their eggs at breakfast—those folks don’t seem to take a great deal of joy in them at all.

But for these longtime truffle hunters, the truffles aren’t the treasure. For these old-timers, truffles are just an excuse to spend time in the forest with their beloved dogs, which they seem to love almost like children. For them, that time is the treasure, not the truffles.

One longtime truffle hunter has quit truffle hunting altogether. He grouses that modern

hunters “know nothing about the forest. They want to plunder it. There’s no respect.” They don’t care about dogs or nature or even the joy of discovery, he says. It’s all about the money.

And I think, in that observation, we see a truly spiritual lesson about value: what we treasure, and what we should.

Perhaps many of us go through life like one of these disrespectful new-breed truffle hunters: We have our eyes on the ground (or on our phones), our minds in the dirt. In our lives and careers, we can grow so fixated on the goal that we forget how important the journey to that goal is. The truffle may be the goal, and yes, it may taste delicious. But it’s the walk in the woods, the joy of the search, the shared companionship that God means for us truly to savor. He made a glorious world for us, and every bit of it is priceless. Sometimes, I think, we can forget that.

The Truffle Hunters is rated PG-13, by the way, primarily for one pretty profane truffle hunter who literally curses over those newcomers (and his broken typewriter, which stops working because he’s so angrily pounding out his opinions). He uses the f-word a couple of times in Italian, which the movie dutifully subtitles.

Beyond that profanity, though (and that same truffle hunter discussing, rather generically, what sex and love were like for him back in the day), the film minds its manners pretty well. It’s gentle and thoughtful and surprisingly funny—a nice anecdote for those who tire of bombastic movies like, say, Godzilla vs. Kong. And while the film will likely appeal mostly to adults, the lessons therein are good for everyone.

But, like truffles, they require just a bit of digging to find them.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.