Directed by #AlexCamilleri
Starring: #JesmarkScicluna #MichelaFarrugia
Film review by Nathanial Eker-Male
Writer-Director Alex Camilleri delivers an honest look at the devastating effects of the capitalist machine with this profound character study. Though Luzzu may appear on the surface to be a simple story of a man’s inner conflict, its implicit commentary on the state of the fishing industry and the culture and traditions it decimates transforms the film into something altogether special.
Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) is a stoic fisherman living on the island of Malta, who works on his family’s ‘luzzu’, a small boat. He’s recently become a parent alongside his weary girlfriend Denise (Michela Farrugia). However, life is hard and their child, Aiden, isn’t growing properly. This, paired with the severe restrictions placed on modern fishermen and the corrupting influence of ‘big fishing’ pushes Jesmark towards illegal activities that challenge every notion of who he is.
With a modicum of perhaps misplaced hope, we might retroactively look back and say that 2021 was the ideal year for Luzzu to release. As we move into a social epoch that finally starts to acknowledge not only climate change, but the effects of global capitalism and its impact on life in our oceans, Luzzu’s message is immeasurably strengthened. Documentaries such as Seaspiracy and Black Fish shock the mainstream viewing public with their hyperbolic phraseology and disturbing imagery and statistics. Luzzu, however, offers a faithful, first-hand look at how ‘big fishing’ is corrupting not only the shores and reefs vital for Earth’s survival but also the quality of the lives of local fishermen.
Jesmark is indicative of this change. In fact, you might consider his character arc a metaphor for the state of local fishing in 2021; ‘adapt or die’. He’s a quiet man, and one bound by tradition and customs. His lack of knowledge of the world beyond his island home is frequently emphasized, both overtly and implicitly; not least by his strong patriarchal desire to fend for his family the old way. Yet it is this same stubbornness that leads him to commit criminal activities that dishonour both his own feelings towards the sea and the legacy of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather; a point consistently hammered home by his fellow fishermen.
In many ways, he is the proverbial ‘old man in the sea’: a lonely sailor pitted against a world that doesn’t understand him, as emphasized by his interactions with his (perhaps) future Mother-in-law. How could he become a furniture mover or a waiter, or a graphic designer? His blood is that of a fisherman; as evidenced by the several fish-related metaphors littered throughout the (sometimes quite witty) script.
In essence, Luzzu represents a loss of community and tradition. It achieves this through both Jesmark’s narrative journey and the film’s visual language. Lingering shots of immense crates full of mass-caught fish and the haunting depiction of a ‘Luzzu graveyard’, where decommissioned boats go to die, all speak to this message. This bleakness is punctuated through the viewpoint of a character who stares more than he speaks. A man who never once breaks down or exposes his absolute sense of loss, lest he drop the bravado of generations of men who refuse to show “weakness”.
Yet it is his strength of character that forces him to make the questionable decisions that undercut the capitalist machine to provide for his family. While we can get on board with conning a few wealthy crooks, his decision to harm the very fishermen he once considered an extension of his family is where many will draw the line. His resonance for the ocean itself is also lost. While the final tableau of Jesmark fishing alone might suggest otherwise, Camilleri’s ultimate message seems to be that one must lose all respect and love for the deep blue to survive in today’s fishing industry.
Though Camilleri’s script and direction are powerful, it is Scicluna who breathes life into Jesmark. He brings an unspoken trauma with only a few mumbled lines and an obvious pain hiding beneath his blank face. It is the climactic destruction of his family legacy – a literal manifestation of everything he will sacrifice to move with the times – that cements Luzzu as a masterwork. Few directors can manifest such feelings of shock, sadness, and loss over what is, ostensibly, a tugboat. Yet we’ve followed Jesmark for so long that we know this obliterated dingy marks the literal end of an era.
Camilleri clearly has little time for happy endings in this solemn piece. Though things may be looking up for Jesmark, the legacy of his family history is beyond repair. Luzzu offers no hints that things might change for the better. Indeed, Jesmark’s boss even frankly states: ‘how many fish do you think will be in the sea in twenty years?’ It’s an ominous, upsetting moment, and one no doubt designed to force us to take stock of our consumption. The message is clear. Should we continue with our complicit annihilation of sea life, we need not worry about being challenged by films like Luzzu. There will likely be nothing left to film.