The blue-collar Maltese drama “Luzzu” tells a story of modern industry not just encroaching on a way of life, but crushing it under its boot heel. Written, directed, edited, and produced by Alex Camilleri, “Luzzu” has a lot to say. But is doesn’t use lengthy speeches, heavy exposition or overly dramatic scenarios. Instead, it makes its points by sitting us down and showing us in the most authentic and unvarnished way possible.
Camilleri brings a documentarian’s clarity to this story of a Maltese fisherman being pushed out of the only business he knows. It’s hard to miss the Italian neo-realism influence all over the film, and fans of Belgian filmmakers the Dardenne brothers will be drawn to Camilleri’s real-world grit. And much like his inspirations, Camilleri uses non-professional actors to great effect. It’s one of many touches that helps the movie shine a heartbreaking yet honest light on a struggling lifestyle and a dying tradition.
The story revolves around a fisherman named Jesmark (played by an actual Maltese fisherman named Jesmark Scicluna). We first see him out on his luzzu – a small twelve-foot fishing boat that has been in his family for generations. He mans his vessel with a workmanlike efficiency, navigating the seas, pulling nets, icing down his catch. But the fish are becoming more scarce in large part due to a huge container port that’s crowding the harbor. And strict EU regulations have inexplicably made certain fish seasonal, limiting fisherman even more.
It’s even worse at the dock where increasingly harsh standards are enforced by harbor inspectors. And then you have the fish auctions where ruthless black marketeers undercut the smaller sellers, forcing them to try and sell their fish to local restaurants and merchants while their catch is still fresh. It’s no wonder some of Jesmark’s friends have made deals with the government to decommission their boats for a meager buyout.
Camilleri lays all of this out with a clear-eyed sincerity, putting us on the boats, around the docks, and in the warehouses. At the same time, there is a poignant dramatic angle that adds an extra layer of realism. Jesmark and his wife Denise (a terrific Michela Farrugia) learn that their infant son “isn’t growing properly“. He needs to see a specialist, but that costs more money than the young couple can afford.
Denise wants to get help from her overbearing mother while Jesmark is determined to take care of his family. But it seems the deck is stacked against him, especially after he learns his luzzu has hull damage and needs immediate repairs. With no means of bringing in money, he gets in with a shady smuggler (Stephen Buhagiar) which adds more stress on his already fraying marriage.
A key to the movie’s success is its authentic sense of place. Camilleri’s unwavering focus on grounding his audience in reality plays a big part. It’s also helped tremendously by cinematographer Léo Lefèvre’s immersive camerawork. The sun-soaked Mediterranean, the electric bustle of the city, the vibrant rainbow array of colors that coat Jesmark’s luzzu – it’s all shot in a way that helps us to feel a part of this rich and textured world.
Even more, “Luzzu” is full of graceful touches that bring even more emotional heft to the story. Scenes like older local fisherman reminiscing about simpler times. Or the soul-shattering way Jesmark lovingly looks upon his son (the raw truth in Scicluna’s eyes during these moments is powerful stuff). All of this adds a tenderness to the world of “Luzzu”. But there is still a tragic element to the story – one that lingers for the duration of this captivating and heartfelt drama.