The small Mediterranean archipelago of Malta has been on the big screen many times before, from World War Z to Troy to Munich, but never before has she been able to play herself. But writer/director Alex Camilleri has now changed that by turning the spotlight on her in his feature directorial debut, Luzzu. Set in the small island country, Luzzu tells the story of a local fisherman, Jesmark, as he struggles between family traditions, modernity, and providing for his new, young family in this neorealist drama. It is a story that is specific to Malta yet still universal in its themes and appeal. Using the island’s natural beauty, the seafaring lifestyle of its people, and the issues affecting them, along with actual non-actor fishermen, Camilleri weaves a beautiful yet powerful story of a young man coming to grips with manhood and adulthood in changing world around him.
Jesmark is a fisherman in the tradition of his father and generation of men before him who made a living fishing on their traditional Luzzu — a dying lifestyle. Along with his wife, he is the parent of a young son who requires some costly medications because he is not developing properly. Struggling to make ends meet and not wanting his wife’s family’s assistance, Jesmark faces the challenge of keeping alive a dying profession in the wake of climate change, bureaucracy, and economic factors while trying to keep his family together. As the economic hardships mount and strain his relationship with his wife, Jesmark contemplates the allure and financial freedom of the illicit black market fish trade. But what will he lose in the process? His Luzzu is really his only connection left to his family. Can he give up a tradition that’s been in his family for generations even though the lifestyle is being left behind in the 21st century? It’s hard when you’ve been conditioned your whole life for this one thing; it’s all you know.
What makes Luzzu such a solid debut is Camilleri’s neorealist approach to the storytelling. Jesmark, played by Jesmark Scicluna, is not an actor but a bonafide Maltese fisherman. But you wouldn’t know this from watching him on the screen. Scicluna has such a presence and brings a raw, strong but tender intensity to the roll. It also helps that Camilleri incorporated Scicluna and his fellow fishermen and their daily life and conversations into the writing of the script — blending a documentary feel with the narrative elements making it a much more impactful and emotionally engaging film. You really connect with the characters.
At one point or another, we’ve all been confronted with choosing between family traditions or doing what’s right for us individually and forging our own path — or may grappling to adapt to an ever-changing world. Although you may not come from the same circumstances, we all know what it means to really step into adulthood and find ourselves. Essentially, “Luzzu” is the story of a fighter who will do whatever it takes to care for his family, stand on his own two feet and not give up — it’s a story of determination against all odds. It’s the story of an underdog — and we all love those stories and root for Jesmark, even though what he is doing is technically considered illegal. We pass no judgment, and the moral ambiguity is pushed off the screen as the story of a father fighting for his family takes center stage.
Luzzu is a vibrant film to watch — you can get swept away in the beauty and majesty of some of the shots on the open sea. And the beautiful color palette helps to make this a visual delight thanks to the camera work of cinematographer Léo Lefévre. Alex Camilleri’s direction and use of non-professional actors to tell such a subtle emotional story that still seems to resonate with viewers. Even stage actor Michela Farrugia, who plays Jesmark’s wife Denise, is making her feature debut. But it is these fresh, nuanced performances that really make this film work so well.
The tension between Jesmark and Denise’s disapproving mother (her family comes from money, but the couple is trying to make it independently) during the baby shower is so real. The chemistry between the characters is so natural, even the scenes of Jesmark with his son are so intense — strong but yet tender, and all the more reason to give Scicluna his props for pulling off such a subdued yet moving performance — he carries the film well. Add to that a beautiful score, breathtaking scenery, and believable performances you get a solid feature debut that, on the surface, just seems like one man’s struggle to survive. Still, underneath the calm surface of the ocean, it is an exploration of masculinity, adulthood, and survival in an ever-changing society.