What a tragic fate, to live at the intersection where tradition crosses modernity. Post-Brexit, Americans and Europeans alike have grown to romanticize the EU despite its pronounced flaws; stamping each of its 27 countries with a uniform slate of regulations, as if economic accords come in “one size fits all” measurements, has had a negative impact on the working class. Without offering direct commentary on either rose-tinted liberal views or Boris Johnson’s nationalist maneuvering, Maltese-American writer/director/editor Alex Camilleri’s naturalist debut, Luzzu, dramatizes those blue-collar struggles under well-intended but neglectful political guidance. The film is about the EU without being about the EU.
It’s strictly about Jesmark Scicluna, a 20-something Maltese fisherman playing himself, to a point: Camilleri’s writing tailors Jesmark’s personal experiences into a character of similar background but with varied ordeals. Jesmark is the son of a fisherman who was himself the son of a fisherman and so on down the generations, with each father passing down the family luzzu—the vivid red-yellow-blue fishing boat traditionally used by sailors of the Maltese islands. Wishing to make his living the same way his forebears did, Jesmark collides with roadblocks and other obstacles, primarily financial and also domestic. He has an infant son with his girlfriend, Denise (Michela Farrugia), and they’re told by their pediatrician that the little cutie has a growth impediment solved only by expensive medical intervention.
This is the last thing young parents want to hear, especially young parents on the edge of financial instability. The last thing that Jesmark specifically wants to hear is any kind of hemming or hawing over his dogged determination to fish like his dad. It’s all he knows…at least that’s what he tells himself, Denise and David (David Scicluna, the real Jesmark’s cousin), his mentor and his father’s old pal. Grant that fishing is in Jesmark’s DNA. But also grant that Jesmark’s world is evolving and changing around him. He can change with it, or he can dig in his heels. Jesmark runs into fellow fisherman Kevin (Yuric Allison), who tells him he decommissioned his boat for an EU payout. Instead of wearing raggedy-ass T-shirts, Kevin now wears chic button-ups and leather boots.
Luzzu lays out Jesmark’s options for maintaining his dignity: He can repair his boat, which is rotting and falling apart day by day despite his best efforts; he can find a new job that doesn’t leave him smelling like, as Denise puts it so eloquently, “a whale’s pussy;” or he can dip his toes in the black market. There’s no surprise in his decision to defy regulators, selling fish out of season as if to say “fuck you” to the law, though his obvious distaste for what the black marketeers do—namely wreak havoc on local fish populations and screw over his fellow fishermen—presents its own conflicts.
Choices are key to Camilleri’s storytelling. When both the “good guys,” the EU, and the “bad guys,” the black marketeers, impose difficulties on your livelihood, there aren’t any good choices to make. All that people like Jesmark can do, Camilleri seems to argue, is make the best bad choice possible. Nothing he does suits him. He gradually warms to his new acquaintance, Uday (Uday Maclean), a South Asian laborer well-versed in the ways of evading authorities, but he can’t stomach the guilt; when he makes an honest living, he’s looked down on by his mother-in-law, Carmen (Frida Cauchi). Whether classism or crime, Jesmark can’t win. Frankly, the only person in Luzzu who doesn’t aggrieve him to some extent is his son. (Camilleri and cinematographer Léo Lefèvre capture Malta’s beauty with an eye on the same reds, yellows, and blues decorating Jesmark’s boat, but the film’s hushed moments of peace between father and child might be its best.)
Camilleri worked as assistant editor with Ramin Bahrani on three movies before directing his own. Bahrani’s influence is evident in Luzzu’s neo-realism, and the film is of a piece with the works of Diego Ongaro, Jonas Carpignano and Kelly Reichardt, too. It’s that non-professional component that ties Camilleri’s filmmaking together: Scicluna’s performance isn’t flashy, but it’s honest, which gives the film much more impact than any faux-grounded affectations would allow. He matches well with his co-stars, but he acts best with the luzzu itself, a character of a sort and a symbol above all else. Jesmark replaces wood, David lovingly adds layers of paint, but beneath the love and care there is decay. Watching Jesmark let go of the boat, the past and his beloved traditions is as painful as Luzzu is lovely. What’s a fisherman without a rod? What is a fishing community if restrictions deny their catch? The world continues to change no matter what anyone does. Camilleri understands that dilemma and puts it on film with humble clarity.
Director: Alex Camilleri
Writer: Alex Camilleri
Starring: Jesmark Scicluna, Michela Farrugia, David Scicluna
Release Date: October 15, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.