Luzzu (2021) – a true revelation of a film directed in Maltese language by Alex Camillieri – takes a look at an individual who fights the corrupt system. It’s a fine piece of independent filmmaking, and a story that evokes all kinds of emotions – from joy and awe to anger and distress.
Imagine yourself in a lovely restaurant, where the fresh sea breeze gently strokes your skin, while scents of freshly cooked food tease your nostrils. Such a pitch-perfect image rarely allows the “guts” to be seen. But underneath the sizzling fish, served in the company of gorgeous views, lies a rotten system; a true battlefield where the big guys – an amalgamation of Maltese officials, the EU and the local mob – crush the island’s fishermen in ruthless ways.
The word luzzu describes a traditional, wooden boat, always ornamented with colorful paints and a pair of eyes that somehow humanizes it. In the first scene of the film, Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) goes out into the open sea, alas the catch disappoints. Furthermore, Jesmark’s nearly centuries-old luzzu reveals a crack that puts the man’s work at jeopardy.
A broken boat won’t be the only issue for Jesmark to tackle. Things haven’t been great between him and Denise (Michela Farrugia) ever since their child’s development was diagnosed as “lacking behind”. With little money in their pockets, Denise and Jesmark have to find a way to make ends meet, with the latter standing opposed to the solutions proposed by Denise.
Alex Camillieri, the director of Luzzu (2021), sticks to Jesmark for most of the time. Being so close to the main character creates an immersive experience where we partake in his journey. Jesmark’s under heavy barrage on all fronts, because Camillieri channels his efforts to constantly portray the protagonist in between Scilla and Charybdis. On the one hand, he strives to do what he knows and genuinely loves. He’s been around for too many fishermen’ stories – often related to his local legend of a father – to easily reject that way of living.
Yet times are changing, and fishing in the old-way style seems to be a Sisyphean work. Hence, Jesmark cultivates his rage, but also learns the ropes of survival. As part of this lesson, Camillieri takes us to see the busy fish market, with the backstage deals, frauds and bribes that go on under the cloak of night. We learn the dirty tactics of the poor fishermen who bend before the higher powers, while still believing that tables will turn in their favor. In the middle of that mess is Jesmark, torn between repairing his luzzu and exploring the blossoming black market as means of staying afloat.
Despite that Camillieri’s attention remains laser-focused on the protagonist, there are more figures that play their part along the way. The director crafts a film that reaches for a broader vivisection of the Maltese society. There are other local fishermen – like Jesmark – who feel betrayed and left to ponder why the combined forces of the EU and the local government perpetrated this crime against their local tradition of fishing. They complain about the restrictive laws, although Camillieri throws in details that balance the truth – like the half-priced petrol guaranteed for the small ships. In the skillful hands of Alex Camillieri, these facts, as well as the silent shots of gargantuan freight ships speak more about the crisis than hundreds of dialogue lines.
Surrounding the fishermen are regular citizens, like Denise or her mother, people caught up in the fight. While the supporting characters aren’t given as much screen time, Camillieri shoes enough to present their points of view in a convincing manner.
Nevertheless, make no mistake – the director isn’t taking sides in the discussed matter. Luzzu (2021) is often an impartial documentary of sorts, using Jesmark as the core of the narrative but with a focus on the nationwide issue. Camillieri makes sure that none of the characters remains the same all the time – i.e. a foreign fisherman working for the local mobster whose motivations become more and more relatable for us. Everyone try to forge their own success, and for Camillieri, it’s the broad picture that grabs his attention.
As mentioned earlier, the heart of Luzzu (2021) – Jesmark Scicluna – guarantees the film’s impact on us. This internalized performance brings the same amount of confidence and gravitas as the unforgettable role of Géza Röhrig in Son of Saul (2017). Scicluna can be a simmering, ready-to-explode volcano, but equipped with kindness and good-willed attitude that sticks. Having watched many films with non-professional actors, one can only dream of such confidence at all times.
Same goes for his partner Denise, played by Michela Farrugia. The actress provides a planet for Jesmark to orbit around, and their chemistry is present from the very first scene when we see the couple at the hospital, giggling like a bunch of high-school kids. Even the smaller roles – Jesmark’s friend, the mobster godfather or the foreign fisherman on his payroll – the entire ensemble works well under the firm direction of Alex Camillieri.
Luzzu (2021) also shines as a very rare example of a film directed in Maltese, as well as touching on the problems of this tiny island nation. Similarly to another drama about the hardship of living on a postcard paradise – Waikiki (2020) – DP Leo Lefevre trades Instagram filters and gorgeous sights of Malta for very intimate cinematography. The confined effect is bolstered by Jon Natchez’s score.
In one of the film’s key scenes, Jesmark’s mother-in-law accuses him to keep his kid and her daughter under the sand; a provocation that meets with the fisherman’s response “maybe I want to be left in the sand?“. Luzzu (2021) shows that dog-eat-dog world exists everywhere, and there’s hardly a way for the old ways to exist in the modernized world. Alex Camillieri leaves us with a bitter ending, and a nagging question about the new forces of global economy. Are we building a world of prosperity, or we change things for the sake of changing them, leaving scorched soil where we claim to plant new life?