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Film Review: “Luzzu” Asks Whether We Must Choose Between Survival and Tradition

Written by: Hannah Tran | October 11th, 2021

Film poster: “Luzzu”

Luzzu (Alex Camilleri, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

You’ve probably seen the Maltese coast a dozen times in movies without realizing it. Despite its popularity as a stage for others’ stories, it rarely moves beyond the coastline to tell stories of its own. Alex Camilleri’s Luzzu, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was the first of the small archipelago’s to compete in a major international film festival.

This debut for Camilleri glimpses at the life of a fisherman faced with impossible decisions. Can he continue to work if he can’t afford to take care of his son? Would he give up his “luzzu,” the colorful boat symbolic of his culture’s history and tradition, in exchange for a government payout? A tense tale with complex characters, Luzzu is a fascinatingly crafted film that is the perfect way to introduce Malta to the rest of the world.

Jesmark Scicluna in LUZZU ©Kino Lorber

While Maltese culture may be unfamiliar to some audiences, the filmmaking style has a welcome familiarity rooted in the country situated above it (Italy). Camilleri uses the techniques of neorealism to portray the struggles of his characters and flawlessly captures the grit of different aspects of Maltese culture, as well as their deterioration due to European regulations, without ever sacrificing the country’s natural beauty. Perhaps most impressive, the movie employs a cast composed of nonactors who are actually from the country. Real-life fisherman Jesmark Scicluna in the role of the aptly named fisherman, Jesmark, is astounding. Scicluna is a natural, and it is easy to feel his real stress, anxiety, and exhaustion each step of the way.

Through Jesmark, we are introduced to the real-life struggles faced by Maltese on a broad scale. We see the difficulty of raising a working-class family, the bureaucratic injustices that reward illegal behavior, and the harm that broad, nonspecific solutions can cause national cultures and traditions. While the story may drag a bit in its second act, the quandaries it focuses on provide enough to ponder that this narrative slump doesn’t really matter. Luzzu has a wide scope, but the story and characters at its center represent them in a refreshingly personal and genuinely sympathetic light.

l-r: Jesmark Scicluna and Michela Farrugia in LUZZU ©Kino Lorber

Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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