Sometimes going by the books is necessary to cover all the bases. The tale of a fisherman caught between providing a stable home for his child and pursuing his occupation that has been passed down from generation to generation has no real villain except the 21st century: rigid ecological fishing laws, the decline of private enterprise in the industry, and, of course, climate change. Real-life fisherman Jesmark Scicluna falls into the leading role with ease, as do his non-professional counterparts, as a modern day Maltese Poseidon. The conflict, although quite specific, rings true as a reflection on the impossibility of a simple life. Ernest Hemingway would be proud to regard Luzzu as a thematic follow-up to his acclaimed novel, bringing together man, water, and fish as one.
It's no shock that director Alex Camilleri feels a deep connection to his subject matter. As the child of Maltese immigrants, it was only natural that he would eventually feel enticed to come back to his roots. One of the major selling points of the film is how few Maltese stories there are, given that the country, which is wedged as a middleman between Italy and Tunisia, usually serves as the tropical backdrop for vacation flicks or action set pieces. By engaging directly with the infrastructure of the island and its diverse populous, Camilleri lets the universal matters of family, passion, and sacrifice appeal to the masses. Although it's an easy criticism to lambaste the conventionality of the story tropes, with its temperamental protagonist, nagging mother-in-law, and "falling into the dirty job" plot point, these cliches are often necessary to make room for the definitively pensive nature of the quiet moments in between. A priest blessing the boats as Jon Natchez' gentle violin score plays in the background, the eyes of the corpses of forfeited luzzus staring daggers into Jes, and a father and son, in the tranquil hours of the afternoon, finally at rest on the couch.
Enriched by the stunning Mediterranean backdrop and Alex Camilleri’s knowing knack for structure, Luzzu is a very honorable debut for both Camilleri's career in directing and Malta's place in the film world. This wholesome and heartfelt story will no doubt earn its status as an understated gem of Sundance 2021.