Oh, did I say we were going to do three reviews in a row for International Feature submissions? Make that four! And within a couple of weeks, that number may very well be up to six, as Kosovo and Japan’s entries are getting their stateside releases later this month as well. But for the time being, we’ll end our international break with Luzzu, from Malta, directed by Alex Camilleri. Premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film emphasizes the lengths some must go to in order to hold on to their traditions and ambitions.
To keep things relatively simple in casting, real-life brothers Jesmark and David Scicluna play characters with those same first names. Both are small-time commercial fisherman working on luzzu boats, which are small, wooden Maltese fishing vessels known for their bright paint jobs and decorative eyes attached to the bow. Jesmark, operating the same boat his father and grandfather once owned, is down on his luck, accumulating several debts while catching very few fish (and some of what he does bring in he ends up giving away). Jesmark dreams of the day he can teach his infant son the ways of his forebears, but between the cost of needed repairs to the boat and the increasing monopolization of the fishing lanes by corporate fishermen and trawlers, things look grim.
When Jesmark’s boat springs a leak, his source of income comes to a dead stop. David is willing to do the repairs by hand if Jesmark can buy the materials, so he ends up working on David’s boat, hoping to get a split of the earnings. However, two major obstacles block any real profit. First, the pair accidentally catch a swordfish, which is illegal out of season. Jesmark, knowing there’s a black market for these things, is willing to risk smuggling it for quick cash, the first indication of his ongoing moral dilemma, but David refuses to put his own fishing license on the line if they get caught. Second, to make matters worse, the buyer (Stephen Buhagiar) at the local fish market refuses to even sell their fish because he’s the one doing all the smuggling for the trawlers, and is intentionally trying to drive the smaller fishermen out of business so he can control the port.
All of this mounts to a crisis of conscience for Jesmark. He wants to do right by his wife Denise (Michela Farrugia) – who works as a waitress rather than accepting money from her wealthy Sicilian family, particularly her judgmental mother (Frida Cauchi) – and provide a future for his son (as well as paying medical expenses), while also maintaining his own integrity. He’s being emasculated on all sides, personally from his in-laws, and financially via the corrupt trawlers, to the point where he has to consider what lines he’s willing to cross to keep his version of an idyllic life going. Mostly English conversations with migrant dockhand Uday (Uday McLean) help to put things in perspective as Jesmark finds his moral middle grounds, but with each day he can’t help but feel his identity slipping away. All the while, as more and more fishermen drop out of the business, turning in their licenses and boats, the eyes of his own luzzu stare back at him, silently judging but also pleading for salvation.
The cinematography throughout the film is very strong, making great use of not just the colors of the boats, but the rich color palette afforded by the Mediterranean shooting locations. The sun glistens off the water and reflects off the hulls of the ships, granting a gorgeous contrast to the gritty, almost slimy interior lighting schemes, giving us a great juxtaposition of the seedy underworld lurking just out of sight of the more touristy splash pages. This also gives us a good insight into Jesmark’s character, with the washed out colors of the nighttime scenes echoing the emptiness he feels as he hustles on both sides of the law to try to salvage his preferred way of life.
This is an admirable entry, if nothing else than because it gets a lot of mileage out of a relatively simple premise. Man feels like his easy life is being destroyed by criminals, judgmental relatives, and government corruption (easy way to avoid taking a political stance is to make everyone responsible for his pain, including himself to an extent), so he tries a few different tactics to see what he can do to avoid his own obsolescence. Along the way he learns what’s really important, and finds a way to live in a changing world. This is a basic story that’s been told hundreds of times over the years. But thankfully, with solid performances and captivating visuals, there’s enough here to excuse a well-worn theme. Malta has never gotten a nomination for International Feature (or any of its previous incarnations), but this may be their best shot in a long time.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you tired of foreign reviews? Could this entire film have been summed up by Billy Joel’s song “Downeaster Alexa?” Let me know!