SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! The small island nation of Malta, which lies just south of Sicily in the Meditteranean sea, has not been featured in many films screened in the U.S., possibly because of its size or unfamiliarity to American audiences. Writer/ director Alex Camilleri sets out to change that in Luzzu.
Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna), a young fisherman, is barely making ends meet in the fished-out waters around Malta when he discovers a leak in his wooden luzzu boat. The boat, as well as the traditional livelihood, were handed down to him by generations of men in his family, so many that he doesn’t even know how old the boat is. Anger and desperation pour from him as he faces his disapproving wife, Denise (Michela Farrugia), and mounting medical expenses for treatments for their newborn son. The situation is exacerbated by strained relations with his mother-in-law, who pushes him to leave fishing and find work that pays better. She suggests that “fishing is a nice way to spend the summer,” but no longer an occupation for a man with a family.
Despite her scathing assessment, he’s no slouch, and as circumstances close in, Jesmark energetically looks for ways to sell his meager catches while they are fresh. Fishermen with better boats and more modern fishing methods always beat him to the market and get the better prices. He hustles feverishly, refusing to take no for an answer. In his dealings, he connects with men making mad money in black-market fishing and becomes entangled in their risky, illegal business.
“…Jesmark energetically looks for ways to sell his meager catches…”
Jesmark is loath to leave fishing, refusing, as do many other fishermen, to accept that this traditional way of life is over. When he meets a man who scrapped his own luzzu and accepted a buy-out from a government program that helps fishermen transition to other jobs, he shuns his friend, seeing no honor in the decision. While Jesmark has his boat out of the water for repairs, he takes a hard look at his life and is faced with the prospect of choosing between several options, none of them good.
Camilleri chose to cast fishermen who could act rather than actors pretending to fish, and the resultant realism is startlingly authentic. Jesmark Scicluna is skilled at both, playing, essentially, himself, but delivering the part with an intense, pulled-back precision that belies his inexperience. The cast includes many locals, in fact. The film is scripted dramatic fiction, but no less true for that.
The lack of resource management in areas like Malta combined with the effects of climate change are creating conditions that require a cultural response. Jesmark argues that the fishermen have worked the waters for thousands of years, but expanding populations and exports, as well as environmental factors, have made traditional fishing obsolete. None of this, of course, matters to a man whose wife is expecting him to provide for his young family. What was once a proud tradition, celebrated both in its ability to feed the people and its old-world longevity, is now looked upon with scorn by those who have already moved on.
Camilleri captures the beauty of Malta in Luzzu. He shows us the island, the sea, the colorful traditional boats with faces painted on the front, and the glamour of sunset over the ocean. He also shows us life there can be destructively difficult for people trying to make it on the low end, as they struggle to maintain their traditions and pride while the world changes around them. Jesmark lives in a time of accelerated Darwinism, where all must adapt or perish.
Luzzu screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
"…captures the beauty of Malta..."