Imagine giving up something you love because you have no choice but to let it go. How would you feel? These are the questions at the center of Alex Camilleri’s new film Luzzu. The main character learns a lesson about the power of sacrifice as he must give up a long-lasting family custom because of restrictions, low earnings, and climate change. Camilleri and cinematographer Léo Lefèvre capture the dying art of Maltese fishing with sincerity, curiosity, and realism, by using untrained actors to add rawness and authenticity to this subtle drama.
The film follows Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna who plays himself), a Maltese fisherman looking to preserve his family fishing legacy using a passed down traditional Maltese Luzzu boat. For fishermen on the island, the industry is quickly dying as locals decommission their fishing boats en masse in exchange for government payout. Jes doesn’t want to leave this life behind, but he’s not making any money and has his wife Denise (Michela Farrugia) and a sick child to support. He comes up with ways to earn income, but the cash isn’t coming in fast enough, and his spouse is becoming increasingly irritated with his inability to accept change.
The thing is, Jesmark can make good money fishing, but the illegal way. On a boat trip with David (cousin of Jesmark Scicluna who also plays himself), he caught a swordfish but had to throw it back into the ocean because it’s a protected fish. He can no longer survive without a steady income, but a shady encounter exposes him to the profession’s dark side as he witnesses seafood trafficking. He blackmails himself into a job with these traffickers, although he’d rather go back to the ocean on his own terms.
There’s a heartbreaking scene where Jesmark gives up his boat and drops it off in a junkyard. As he walks away from the Luzzu, Camilleri blurs the background to build tension as he knows the boat is about to be no more. As things behind him get more and more out of focus, the crunching sounds of the wood cracking and breaking is soul-crushing. Jes has to take a moment to process what just happened and watch him accept that his old way of life is gone forever. The scene hits like a ton of bricks.
There is admiration and appreciation in the direction and framing of the film’s subjects. As a viewer, I could tell Camilleri thoroughly studied the art of Maltese fishing before filming based on the way the characters and their activities are framed. He examines every activity they engage in, from unraveling nets to fixing boats. It’s a love letter to the country’s people and the people who try to keep this culture alive. The islands of Malta are a character in its own way, and while the sweeping landscapes are breathtaking, the people are the heart and soul of this place.
At the conclusion, Jesmark tells his son a story about his family history with the Luzzu. It is then he realizes just because the Luzzu is physically gone, the memories are still there, and he’s happy with that. As a first feature, Camilleri demonstrates that he understands storytelling, how to bring out the humanity of his characters, and how to create a sense of community. This subtle story of a fisherman in crisis manages to build a sense of triumph out of tragedy.
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