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Film Review: Luzzu

13 June 22 words: Oliver Parker

A fisherman casts his rod into the black market in this striking Maltese drama…

Director: Alex Camilleri
Starring: Jesmark Scicluna, Michela Farrugia, David Scicluna
Running time: 94 minutes

Opening on the deep blue sea reflecting the harsh, bright sun we are introduced to a man sailing along it in his Luzzu boat – a traditional Maltese fishing boat and the fitting title of the film. We see him sailing along, night and day trying to catch fish; however, within a few minutes it becomes clear that it’s not going overly well. This fisherman is Jesmark, a working class man who is the most recent in a long line of family fisherman; his Luzzu boat has even been passed down since his great-great-grandfather. Although his current working life is threatened by a multitude of economic problems that seem to be grasping tighter around his life.

Jesmark and his partner, Denise, have a baby boy who requires specialist treatment and medication – something which comes at a hefty cost. Soon the stress of paying for that, along with rent, bills and repairs for his damaged boat becomes a burden that weighs heavy on the couple. Denise works a job as a waiter but that combined with the diminishing income that the fishing industry provides is proving to not be enough. The catch is that Denise’s parents, whom she is seemingly estranged from, are actually reasonably wealthy and can offer the money that they need; however, the act of taking away this financial burden and duty of fatherhood from Jesmark causes a fracture in his male psyche. Around Denise’s family he does not fit in, they come from totally different class backgrounds and the antagonisms between the two eventually cause a rift in their own relationship, not to mention the growing burden of financial issues.

At its heart the film is about both the slow decline of small fishing communities and how large-scale globalism has swallowed up the business and driven out many of the fishermen. One example of this is early on when Jesmark and his friend are trying to sell their fish at an open auction market; the prices have dropped even more and when they decide to try to sell it on their own terms, many places have already bought fish from other bigger sellers. Another is the recurrence of the large EU trawlers that hire people on mass to fish on massive scales. Jesmark is reluctant to join them as he claims they “ruin the seabed” and their huge, whirring ships always linger in the background of the landscapes – alongside the large scale construction sites and shipping factories.

An absolutely striking debut that showcases some brilliantly fresh talent who are certain to have some great careers

Throughout the film his struggles continue and ultimately he is faced with a choice: to retire his  boat and claim a retraining compensation from an EU funded scheme, or to work in the underground illegal world of fishing – one that aims to sell out-of-season fish to high paying buyers. Both come at a cost, one relinquishing his family tradition for good and the other means joining a ruthless group that actively seeks to ruin the lives of his fellow fisherman. Ultimately, he is pushed into the latter but the writer/director Alex Camilleri successfully presents this as a last resort option – something Jesmark is only doing because the global economy has pinned him into a corner. Camilleri creates a dichotomy between criminality and capitalism and ponders on the question that asks who the real criminals are. Even going so far as feeling like a character study akin to something like Michael Mann’s Thief, a film also about chasing economic stability and raising a child in a harsh capitalistic world.

A large majority of the characters, including Jesmark, are played by non-professional actors. This is something that helps with the neo-realist feeling of the film. Luzzu feels totally grounded and almost as if you are watching a documentary, remaining constantly realistic and feeling like a human story. However, this isn’t to say that the film isn’t stylish; despite having a fairly austere story, the film looks absolutely stunning as it focuses on the duality of the gleaming sun-soaked beaches and the shady night time underworld, drenched in street lights. There is also a level of warmth given to the fishing community, especially in the scenes where they are banded together discussing stories from their struggles adapting to the rapidly changing economic realities we exist in.

Luzzu feels like an ode to the workers, specifically the fishermen, of Camilleri’s hometown; the working-class communities struggling to grapple with the encroaching businesses that aim to drive them into submission; and the families who just want to pave a better life for their children. It is an absolutely striking debut that showcases some brilliantly fresh talent who are certain to have some great careers.

Luzzu is showing at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 16 June

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