Luzzu casts its net with a devoted Maltese fisher as storm clouds gather

Alex Camilleri’s impressive debut evokes the traditions and dwindling options for proud fisher and family man Jesmark as the tide retreats on his way of life.

Jesmark Scicluna as Jesmark in Luzzu (2021)

► Luzzu is in UK cinemas from 27 May, streaming on demand from 27 June and on DVD from 11 August.

Through his portrait of the changing nature of sea-fishing on the sun-soaked island of Malta, writer-director Alex Camilleri casts his net further, to capture wider issues of identity, loss and the burden of responsibility – both to one’s past and one’s future. It’s an impressive feature debut from the Maltese filmmaker, making the most of a stunning setting and performances.

Particularly notable is Jesmark Scicluna, a real-life Maltese fisherman who was picked by Camilleri to play the lead character, also named Jesmark. Quiet, proud and deeply passionate about his family’s fishing roots, the thirtysomething Jesmark and his cousin David (David Scicluna) attempt to make a living with line and net from their colourful 100-year-old wooden fishing boat (the luzzu of the title). While the waters sparkle under the Mediterranean sun, darkness lurks below. Stymied by new EU legislation limiting his catch, Jesmark struggles to make ends meet; a situation made worse by the fact that his young son Aiden needs medical attention. Under pressure from his wife Denise (Michela Farrugia) and her sniffy upper-class family to be more of a provider, Jesmark succumbs to the lure of the local black market and spends more time delivering illegal catches (and bribes) than out on his boat.

Scicluna in Luzzu

Scicluna’s measured performance effectively encapsulates the devastating effect this has on him. His entire life has been lived on the sea – in a poignant sequence, Aiden’s baby footprint joins his own on the luzzu’s paintwork – and he has no desire to move to another industry, as EU-funded ‘compensation’ is tempting other local fishermen to do. But his choices are increasingly restricted by red tape, dwindling fish stocks, his desire to provide a ‘better’ life for his son. He is a traditional man buffeted by the relentless currents of capitalism, and the toll is written all over his weather-worn face.

It’s also reflected in the film’s evocative visuals. Cinematographer Léo Lefèvre captures in intimate detail Jesmark’s relationship with his boat, the nets, the sea, opening out, in contrast, to wide horizons that take in the trawlers and cargo ships that are changing Jesmark’s life.

Sound design is also effective, capturing the natural sounds of this ancient industry (the creak of wood on waves, the slap of fish on the deck) and the abrasive chimes of change (the blast of trawler horns, the crunch of boats being destroyed for scrap). In one memorable moment, Aiden’s desperate cries merge with the equally desperate shouts of fishermen attempting to sell their catch for a decent price at market; effectively underscoring the tensions between past and future at the heart of this deeply moving film.

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