“Luzzu” is a simple but gripping drama about a Maltese fisherman facing the end of his generations-long profession in a world of globe-trotting trawlers, international trade and climate change.
Its star is a real-life Maltese fisherman, a man so intimately acquainted with his way of life and the desolation of losing it that what we’re watching never feels like a performance, but a hard life lived in front of the camera.
Maltese-American Alex Camilleri’s debut feature summons up memories of other movies set in archaic professions — coal mining and textiles, family farming and cowboying — and the classics of Italian neo-realist cinema such as “Bicycle Thieves.” Like those films, and “Luzzu” producer Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop,” it crosses the line between fiction and life, dramatizing the intimate details of hard work and struggle using people who have endured that as its performers.
Whatever its antecedents, there’s the resonance of reality in “Luzzu,” one of the best pictures of 2021.
Jesmark Sicluna plays a version of himself, a thirtyish young man who puts to sea for a couple of days at a time in his 12 foot long luzzu, the colorful Maltese version of an ancient fishing boat once common all over the Mediterranean. It’s a double-ended, high freeboard (steep sides to fend off waves) vessel his great grandfather owned, then his grandfather and his father.
It’s kept generations of his fishing family safe and employed. And on the day and night we meet him, it’s taking on water.
Jesmark’s lack of panic is part and parcel of the sense that he gets across that he’s grown up on the water. He handles nets and his slim catch with a lifetime of barehanded practice. He pushes at the soft spot in the wooden hull knowing he dare not push it harder, but that it’ll get him home.
He pulls out the homemade ice (frozen plastic water bottles he breaks up), stores his catch and makes his way to shore.
There’s a baby to be picked up — little Aiden — and a waitress wife, Denise (Michela Farrugia) to meet up with.
They have a pediatrician’s appointment, and her news isn’t good. Their infant is slow growing and slow-developing. He needs extra care and to see expensive specialists if he’s to have a shot at growing up normal.
Rifts in the marriage are exposed as Denise suggests they get in touch with her wealthy but estranged mother.
“I’ll take care of us, OK?” he assures her (in Maltese with English subtitles). But she’s no more reassured than we are, and for the first time we notice, she’s a little out of his league. We see him notice that, too.
He’s not catching many fish, either by himself or on his brother David’s (David Scicluna) bigger boat. David helps him haul Jes’s boat, Ta’ Palma, onto shore and diagnose its repair. But that’s going to cost money. Maybe he could take on work on a local trawler?
“Trawlers destroy the sea bed,” he barks at Denise. Jes has principles and will not ruin the fishery his family has depended on forever.
“Luzzu” becomes the story of how family friction, deepening debt and a world that’s closing in around him makes this stubborn, outspoken man cut corners and watch his principles gurgle to the bottom like his dreams of a self-employed job-for-life.
Camilleri’s movie flirts with melodrama as the odds pile up against our hero, with everyone from the “new” auctioneer at the local wholesale fish market to restaurant owners to fisheries managers and even his wife’s own family becoming an obstacle in his path for going on as he always has.
We see that “Bicycle Thieves” corruption set in as he watches a foreign fisherman/hustler (Uday McLean, terrific) get ahead and get in Jes’s way, time and again. Catching the fish is brutally hard work. Getting someone to pay you money for it when the system seems rigged is damned near impossible.
Sicluna displays a brittle tetchiness that only grows as Jes sees opportunities lost and his still-principled brother David standing in his way. David looks at Jes with worry, much of it directed at the boat his kid brother can’t afford to fix and cannot repair by himself.
“Without a boat, you lose your way.”
Camilleri gets a vivid, lived-in drama out of showing up Jesmark losing his way, making compromise after compromise as so many of us do when faced with the desperate need to provide for our family.
With scenes set on the water, on the docks in the dark of night when shady deals are made, and in the open where rich traditions and a way of life erode right before our eyes, Camilleri’s made a startling debut and a film that takes us into a alien world that is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever had to work for a living.
Rating: unrated, profanity
Cast: Jesmark Sicluna, Michela Farrugia, David Scicluna, Uday McLean
Credits: Scripted and directed by Alex Camilleri. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:34