Luzzu review – beautifully observed study of fishers trying to stay afloat

Casting real-life fishers as his stars, Maltese-American director Alex Camilleri’s paean to his homeland is a neo-realistic classic in the making

Awash in blues and yellows, the colours of the traditional Maltese fishing boat known as a luzzu, Alex Camilleri’s debut is nothing short of a future neo-realist classic. Enveloped in the gentle rippling of the cerulean waves, the evocative soundscape conjures up a vision of seaside idyll. But for the hard-working fishers, rough winds seem to threaten every aspect of their financially precarious life.

Ocean water courses through the veins of young Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna), who inherits his colourful but leaking boat from a long line of seamen going back to his great-grandfather. Camilleri’s astonishing observation of the daily minutiae – from the pleasure of a good catch to the frustrations at the cut-throat fish auctions – shows how Jesmark’s very identity is entangled with his vanishing trade. With mounting bills and a small child in need of special care, Jesmark, like his broken boat, is at his limit.

Like most of the non-professional cast who are real-life fishers, Scicluna delivers an impressively understated performance as a man caught in the tug-and-pull of tradition and modernity. His strong, stoic physique belies a storm of conflicted emotions, as the character is weathered down by temptations to join a bigger fishing company or even engage in smuggling. This enduring, gradual process of moral corrosion is what makes Luzzu an emotionally wrenching work; when Jesmark tells his son a bedside story about an old boat, he wonders if the vessel bears the same spirit after all of its parts have been slowly replaced.

On the face of it, this film is a commentary on the darker side of globalisation and modern commerce, but for Camilleri who was raised in Minnesota in a Maltese family, it also feels like a pilgrimage back to one’s roots, highlighting the specificities of the Maltese language and culture which are still sorely underrepresented in world cinema.

• Luzzu is released on 27 May in cinemas.


Phuong Le

The GuardianTramp

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