The list of films shot or produced on location in Malta is a short one, with the island’s shimmery Mediterranean beauty primarily the backdrop for swords-and-sandals epics. A rare locally-produced film that is also about Malta itself, and features actual Maltese people, “Luzzu” marks the debut of director Alex Camilleri with a vérité fishing drama populated by nonprofessional actors. A neorealist telling in the tradition of the Dardenne brothers, who also work with locals on their films, “Luzzu” is beautifully shot, if at times emotionally restrained, in its centering around a man who’s occasionally hard to read. But it boast a true discovery in the casting of Jesmark Scicluna, a real fisherman who plays a version of himself, and here playing a struggling parent trying to eke out a living along the docks.
A “luzzu” is a traditional Maltese fishing boat, and a veritable 20th-century relic compared to the more advanced trawlers of today. Jesmark’s luzzu, an old wooden thing with more charm than functionality he calls Ta Palma, has a leak. That puts him at a great disadvantage in a competitive fishing market plagued by diminishing harvests. Already barely scraping by, Jesmark also has a baby and a girlfriend, Denise (Michela Farrugia), to care for. When he comes home empty-handed after an especially unlucky day at sea, her disappointment is less nonplussed than a shrug, and she decides to move out of their bare-bones apartment and into her mother’s place. Making matters worse is the baby’s stunted growth, and the ensuing pile-up of medical bills.
Jesmark, whose skillset is limited to the family tradition of fishing he’s been carrying out all his life, is running out of options, and people who believe in him. Neither his mother-in-law, with whom he already has a visibly strained relationship made apparent when he tries to visit his child when Denise is out of town, nor Denise are especially supportive of his trade. “Fishing is a nice way to spend the summer,” his spiteful mother-in-law tells him. Meanwhile, most of his fellow fisherman have sold out to an EU-backed program transitioning them into other industries — a course that, as the film progresses, looks inevitable for Jesmark.
Everyone’s chagrin over Jesmark tightens like a noose. Unable to sell the fish he’s labored over catching at the local market — a chaotic scene of scrabbling buyers and sellers — Jesmark finds himself roped into a black-market operation the equivalent of Maltese gangsters peddling fish in the shadows, along with other surreptitious acts of smuggling and sabotage. At one point, Jesmark tries to sell off gas he’s ciphoned at a lower price to enraged, tonier locals who, probably due to the darkness of his skin, all but laugh in his face.
As he descends deeper into a life of criminality, Jesmark meets plenty of colorful locals who Camilleri, a documentary filmmaker making his narrative feature debut here, plucked from the Maltese scene. They provide for charming banter, especially during one late-night fishing expedition on a trawl hurtling through the moon-dappled Mediterranean sea, that give us a window into who Jesmark is: A hard worker who just wants to care for his family, but with an allegiance to tradition, passed down from his father and his father’s father and so on, that makes it difficult to move forward.
Scicluna plays Jesmark as a sun-stained monument of stoicism, and having spent his whole life on the docks, he can’t really navigate the emotional world outside them. The dramatic arc of “Luzzu” is slight, with Camilleri more interested in people and place than telling a captivating story. But Jesmark Scicluna makes the film compelling nonetheless, and it’s clear that he could be guiding Camilleri and his camera, and not the other way around. Léo Lefèvre’s granular cinematography, meanwhile, provides a dreamy complement, casting the coast in rich blues and the city with an almost dusty, world-worn quality.
Finally, while Jesmark might be at odds with the world and how it wants to force him to grow up, it’s his relationship with his boat that towers over all, and the tenderness with which he cares for it is deeply touching. When he finally has to confront his future, which could mean saying goodbye to Ta Palma, it’s a crushing final note.
“Luzzu” premieres in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at Sundance on January 29, with an encore screening January 31. Memento Films is handling sales.