'Luzzu': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Luzzu
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

'Luzzu'

A sobering sea drama where traditions get tied up in red tape.

Writer-director Alex Camilleri's debut feature, set on the Mediterranean island of Malta, was produced by filmmaker Ramin Bahrani ('The White Tiger').

Within the film world, Malta is generally known as a production hub for Hollywood blockbusters, its picturesque shores used as locations on projects ranging from Game of Thrones to Gladiator to World War Z to Robert Altman’s Popeye. (The abandoned set of the latter has been turned into a local tourist attraction known as “Popeye Village.”) And yet, while the Mediterranean island has served as a stand-in for anything from Ancient Rome to Westeros, it’s rare to see Malta playing itself on screen, especially in its native tongue.

Writer-director-editor Alex Camilleri’s debut feature Luzzu offers up a welcome corrective to that trend, focusing on the plight of a young Maltese fisherman — played by an actual Maltese fisherman — whose longstanding family trade is upended by a bureaucracy making it increasingly hard to earn a living. Naturalistic and a bit on-the-nose in spots, the film is also a moving tale of real-world strife — a sort of low-key, contemporary take on Visconti’s neorealist classic La Terra Trema, with EU officials and regulations undoing seafaring practices that have existed for generations.

In Maltese, “luzzu” is the name given to colorful, handcrafted fishing boats that have been docked around the island for well over a century. One such luzzu belongs to Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna), a native fisherman who inherited both his boat and his love of the sea from his father. Now that he’s become a father himself, Jesmark has to make ends meet in a profession that seems to be on the verge of extinction, with European directives limiting the type of fish that can be caught each season and giant trawlers scooping up much of the catch, leaving only scraps for guys like Jesmark who are out working on their own.

Stacking the deck a little too high against his protagonist, Camilleri — a Maltese-American director who worked as an editor for Ramin Bahrani, credited here as producer — sets up a situation where Jesmark really has no place to turn: At the start of the film his boat breaks down, forcing him to rely on his best friend (David Scicluna) for work; his newborn boy isn’t growing fast enough, pushing the baby’s mother, Denise (Michela Farrugia), to move in with her parents so she can afford proper medical care; and whatever fish Jesmark does catch are being undersold at a wholesale market by a new boss (Stephen Buhagiar), who seems to be dealing in illegal product on the side.

Yet of all the factors threatening Jesmark’s livelihood, the European Union is shown to be the most problematic, its draconian laws ignoring the plight of independent fishermen trying to scrape by on their home turf. (Malta joined the EU back in 2004.)

Early on, Jesmark and David catch a swordfish, which would normally fetch a good price at the market, but then have to toss it back in the water (it’s already dead) because it's out of season. Later, Jesmark is presented with the chance to sell his luzzu and give up his fishing license, which the Union awards with a €7,000 payoff, basically coercing the Maltese to turn away from their time-honored traditions. Whether intentional or not, Camilleri has made the rare art-house movie depicting how blanket EU policies can wind up destroying local customs, as well as the people and families behind them.

Working very much in the spirit of Bahrani’s New York-based films Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, Luzzu functions as part observational drama, part social thriller, shifting toward the latter when Jesmark turns to black market fishmongering in order to make ends meet. Teaming up with an immigrant, Uday (Uday Maclean), who gradually becomes a companion, Jesmark heads out to sea at night, picking up leftover fish to be sold under the table, or sabotaging the fishing gear of the competition. It’s a ruthless world in which a morally intact, hardworking young man is forced to give up his soul (or is that sole?) to feed his family. The more he’s able to get by, the more he loses himself.

Scicluna, making his debut along with the rest of the cast, provides a stoical presence that commands attention; he looks like a man of the sea because he’s one in real life. The actor is less surefooted during the film’s overtly dramatic moments, especially those involving Denise and her family, in scenes that tend to deliberately underline why everything is working against Jesmark to drive him toward his final decision. And yet, when that moment happens it packs a quiet emotional punch, with Camilleri capturing in a single shot how the fisherman’s dreams go literally falling to pieces.

Sketching a vision of Malta that’s far from the postcard-friendly vistas seen in most other movies, whether they’re actually set there or not, the director and cinematographer Léo Lefèvre (Papicha) reveal an island shaken by global economics and Brussels-ordered injunctions, with the Maltese caught squarely in between. Still, there are times when the placid beauty of the place takes over — especially when Jesmark manages to escape the land on his tiny boat, drifting out into a sea he can no longer call his own.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition) 
Production companies: Noruz Films, Luzzu Ltd, Pellikola, Maborosi Films 
Cast: Jesmark Scicluna, Michela Farrugia, David Scicluna, Uday Maclean, Stephen Buhagiar 
Director, screenwriter, editor: Alex Camilleri
Producers: Rebecca Anastasi, Ramin Bahrani, Oliver Mallia, Alex Camilleri
Executive producers: Michael Camilleri, Josephine Camilleri, Pierre Ellul
Director of photography: Léo Lefèvre
Production designer: Jon Banthorpe
Costumer designer: Martina Zammit Maempel
Composer: Jon Natchez
Casting director: Edward Said
Sales: Memento Films International 

In Maltese, English
94 minutes