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Luzzu review – gripping, neo-realist tale of a Maltese fisherman’s survival

This heartfelt ode to life on the water from writer-director Alex Camilleri is as stoic in its execution as it is observant

Ever since Birt Acres captured the moving image of waves crashing onto the coast of Dover in 1895, filmmakers have been enamoured with the sea and its endless possibilities. The expansive ocean, with its deep and dark unknown depths, provides the setting of Alex Camilleri’s debut feature, Luzzu, just as the rhythm of the Maltese waves provides its heartbeat.

Luzzu sees introspective Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) trying to support his family by fishing on a 12-foot traditional wooden “luzzu.” He sets off every morning in the primary coloured boat, just like his father and his father before him, with the hope of securing a good catch he can later sell at the chaotic fish market. However, his boat is in desperate need of repair, fish prices are steadily declining and Jesmark – with his baby son needing special developmental care – finds himself in a financially precarious scenario.

He initially sneers at his wife’s (the magnetic Michela Farrugia) suggestion of joining a higher paying trawler crew, disgusted at the thought of disavowing his familial legacy and becoming complicit in the destruction of the ocean seabed, but his options become weathered and the black market of fishing grows more tempting by the day. Jesmark finds himself in dangerous waters, floating somewhere between tradition and modernisation, deciding whether to sink with pride or swim with desperation; the age-old trade is no longer profitable but new trawler fleets drain money from the local community.

In Camilleri’s paean to Maltese culture, sentimentality is replaced by sharp observation. That’s not to say there aren’t emotional layers here – Scicluna’s performance (as well as the wider cast of non-professional actors) is full of heart-wrenching subtleties – but Camilleri lingers on the ritualistic minutia of untangling wiry fishing nets and snagging fishes from hooks.

It's also clear that Camilleri’s previous documentary work has shaped his filmmaking style; Jesmark’s journey is told in a grounded, neo-realist approach. This is particularly affecting in quiet scenes, like when he cradles his son in his calloused hands and no words are said but palpable emotion pours from his sorrowful eyes.

Awash with glowing yellows and oceanic blues, Luzzu eventually comes down to some central, poignant contemplations: if every part of the ageing boat is eventually altered, is it the same boat? In the same vein, if Jesmark sacrifices his family’s legacy and starts anew, can he still be the same man?

Luzzu is now in UK cinemas.

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