Some occupations go defunct with time. Much like the species of fish that gradually succumb to extinction amid climate change, the fishermen in Malta are falling prey to occupational erosion. Local filmmaker Alex Camilleri’s feature debut Luzzu presents this tricky situation where tradition gets consumed by the need for a sustainable livelihood.
Turning in a quiet yet fiercely nuanced performance is Jesmark Scicluna, a Maltese fisherman who makes his screen debut. Perhaps it is his organic knowledge of the environment, Luzzu alternates between being a captivating docudrama on the fishing industry and a melodrama where a young family struggles to make ends meet. The only job that Jesmark has ever envisioned himself doing is that of a fisherman. It was passed on through generations.
Luzzu gets its title from the vibrant Maltese fishing boat of the same name. Bright in blue shade with yellow, red, and turquoise stripes, intricate embossments, and an imprint of Jesmark’s toddler son’s feet, the luzzu is nothing less than a treasured heirloom for the man. However, owing to regulations from the European Union regarding how much fish can be harvested by local fishermen, the boat’s relevance has become more ornamental than occupational. Not in its greatest shape, this over-repaired piece of wood still holds a special place in his heart.
The first hurdle in front of Jesmark while figuring out the changing ways of his profession is his son. The little boy’s growth impediment demands expensive medicines which he and his partner are unable to afford. Second is his tough-as-a-nut employer through whom he learns about the thriving black market of exotic fish and, often, other forms of illegal transmits. Fortunately for Luzzu‘s intimate temperament, Camilleri merely touches the latter angle by the surface. The focus is on Jesmark coming to terms with his inner turmoil.
Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the image of Malta that we see in Luzzu is bright and lively despite the film’s timid atmosphere. The DOP picks his color palette from the shades of the luzzu, making the frames and their limited components look sharp. I could also see how the editor would interlace the frames in such a fashion that we never get distracted by the rotational nature of the themes – the emotionally taxing family side and an intriguing (and occasionally thrilling) fishing angle.
A neorealistic fare, Luzzu employs an array of non-professional actors who are in great symbiosis with their vocation as well as with the craft of facing the camera. A standout supporting character is Uday, a South Asian migrant fisherman who has deftly learned the ropes of the new system in the fishing industry. The family network, operating on tried-and-tested tropes, injects an element of pragmatism into Jesmark’s constantly perplexed emotional state.
The luzzu in itself is a quiet supporting character. Its final scene leaves a tiny ache in our hearts as the camera looms onto Jesmark’s expressive face. Lastly, the climax leaves with you mixed emotions – there is sorrow, an inkling of optimism, and a tiny layer of happiness somewhere. Alex Camilleri’s film is deeply personal, although it is not very easy to empathize with the fisherman and his inability to wage a revolution to save his livelihood. We rather choose to feel for the doting father in him who fondly talks to his toddler about his cherished family inheritance – the glowing luzzu that swam in the sea for generations.