Review: Luzzu

The theme of Alex Camilleri’s debut feature is the loss of a traditional trade in the face of the inevitable domination of neoliberalism, not to mention time itself. As it takes place on the island of Malta, the movie offers at least a side order of cultural education, since Malta doesn’t produce many films, and there’s a lot to learn about the fishing trade on the island, even if things tend to be tough all over in the same way. Camilleri follows neo-realist practices, perhaps by necessity, by using non-professional actors and a documentary style of shooting, but the melodrama is scripted and sometimes overwhelms his basic theme rather than reinforce it.

The fisherman protagonist Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) has inherited a traditional wooden fishing boat, a luzzu, from his father who, in turn, inherited it from his father. The boat requires extensive repairs, not to mention an elaborately colorful paint job just because that is the tradition. Jesmark is strictly working class, though his wife, Denise (Michela Farrugia), is from a more middle class family, which doesn’t entirely approve of the marriage, especially when EU rules and other economic realities make it difficult for Jesmark to sell his wares. When Denise starts soliciting financial help from her mother, Jesmark’s pride is damaged. The easiest route to solvency, and one that Denise seems to support, is for Jesmark to decommission the boat that has supported his family for generations and give up his fishing license in exchange for a hefty sum of money from the EU, which is trying to cut back on Mediterranean fishing operations due to pressure from both international environmental groups and corporate fishing interests. Instead, Jesmark decides to carry on with fishing, but instead of going the legal route he catches forbidden fish and sells them on the black market without telling Denise.

The drama that blossoms in the second half in contrast to the fairly exposition-heavy first half is informed by added economic difficulties as Jesmark realizes that utilizing the black market is even more difficult than fishing legally under straitened circumstances. To his credit, Camilleri doesn’t demonize the black market operatives, most of whom are just as desperate as Jesmark but have different people to answer to. Moreover, these operatives are wiser about the future of fishing in Malta, which they know is on its last legs, and not only due to overfishing. Climate change is also altering catch sizes and quality. The point is that Jesmark has naively gotten himself into a situation that is worse than what he was going through before, and all for the sake of a tradition he’s too blind to recognize as being regressive.

Though Camilleri could have made his point more effectively with a straight-up documentary, he likely thinks a dramatic retelling is more appreciated, and in many ways it is, but reality is reality and there’s nothing much he can describe here that isn’t shot through with over-determined doom. 

In Maltese and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Luzzu home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Luzzu Ltd.

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