The sad spectacle of Brexit over the last five years has led many casual news-watchers to over-idealize the European Union, even as its uniform industry regulations and injunctions weigh harshly on a lot of innocent parties. A view from the other side comes in “Luzzu,” an honest, affecting slab of working-class portraiture, altogether bracing with its thorny labor politics and salty sea air.
Taking a close, tough view of a Maltese fisherman increasingly driven from the trade he loves by mounting economic strain — atop an unenviable pile-up of personal crises — this satisfying debut feature from Maltese-American writer-director-editor Alex Camilleri also places a welcome cinematic spotlight on an island nation more frequently seen on screen standing in for other Mediterranean or North African locales. Following a premiere in Sundance’s world cinema competition, “Luzzu” looks likely to be a new benchmark in Malta’s little-heralded film industry.
Camilleri’s previous credits include assistant editing work on three projects by Ramin Bahrani, who in turn serves as a producer on “Luzzu.” There’s a clear line to be drawn from Camilleri’s debut to the early work of the Iranian-American auteur, beginning with its embrace of docufiction technique and non-professional casting: The film’s striking lead is Jesmark Scicluna, a young Maltese fisherman adeptly playing an adjusted reflection of his own life, and his sturdy, undemonstrative but quietly potent presence largely sets the tone for the film around him. As with Bahrani and such multinational stylistic peers as Jonas Carpignano, Camilleri’s filmmaking is heavily indebted to the stripped-bare postwar Italian cinema of Visconti and Rossellini: Neo-neorealism isn’t exactly uncharted indie terrain these days, but “Luzzu’s” brawny, sun-broiled shoulders can sustain the weight of its influences.
The title refers to the traditional fishing boats of the Maltese islands, typically identified by their bright, primary-colored paint schemes: It’s a palette from which Léo Lefèvre’s crisp, clear cinematography takes its cue, playing up the various blues of sky and ocean, the neon yellow of Jesmark’s fishing overalls, and the drunken reds of gutted fish.
Jesmark’s luzzu, passed down in his family from father to son over several generations, is a particularly proud, vivid specimen — but it’s in a state of severe disrepair, limiting an independent livelihood already constrained by EU restrictions on which fish can be seasonally caught, and the sea-hogging hauls of large trawlers. Others in his position are packing it in, decommissioning their boats and accepting a buyout payment from Brussels: Jesmark’s girlfriend Denise (Michela Farrugia), with whom he has an infant son, would like him to do something similar, but giving up the only trade he and his forefathers have ever known is a hard ask.
Fictitious beyond the starting point of Scicluna’s real-life profession, Camilleri’s script heavily burdens his protagonist with pressure from all sides. As if his work woes — which include a hostile new boss (Stephen Buhagiar) selling his fish short at the market — aren’t troubling enough, his son is afflicted with a growth impediment that requires costly medical treatment, driving his and Denise’s already tense relationship to breaking point.
At its most heated points, the storytelling here practically hovers between docudrama and melodrama, but it’s pulled down to earth by Camilleri’s keen eye for community relations and conflicts, and a vivid, perspiring sense of place (and plaice, for that matter). Scicluna’s slouchily charismatic authenticity in the role, meanwhile, keeps things consistently real — like an unforced Brando in unglamorous waders.
He’d be compelling enough to carry a more austerely observational piece, but “Luzzu” is far plottier than many films of its ilk — pivoting halfway into tighter genre territory as a desperate Jesmark succumbs to the profitable pull of black-market fishing and trading, with the assistance of savvy Southeast Asian laborer Uday (Uday Maclean, excellent). It’s an altogether more high-stakes racket than you might expect, in which illicit swordfish takes on the dangerous aura of cocaine or blood diamonds, though Camilleri doesn’t immerse us fully in it: Jesmark himself hangs nervously on the sidelines, uncommitted to anything but his doomed ancestral boat, itself caressed by the camera with an equivalent level of devotion. Thus do we find ourselves invested in the fate of this pile of bowed, garishly painted timber: not just a boat, or even an heirloom, but a disenfranchised man’s one place of power, away from a shore determined to keep him down.