Luzzu Review: Alex Camilleri’s quietly action packed drama should be on your 2021 watchlist

Jesmark Scicluna steers a small blue, red, and yellow fishing boat (known as a luzzu) in the open ocean.

Photo courtesy of Pellikola Production Company

Author: Joel Dull

Jesmark Scicluna and his fellow Maltese non-actors star in Alex Camilleri’s beautiful drama about a fisherman and his struggle to make a living.

An old painting of a fisherman in a canoe like boat. He is fishing of the back of the boat with a rod. A large portion of the canvas is empty.
“Angler on a Wintry Lake” Ma Yuan, 1195

One of my favorite works of art is Ma Yuan’s “Angler on a Wintry Lake ” (1195). Ma Yuan is famed for his use of empty space; the emptiness on his canvases were as much a part of the image as the painted aspects.  “Angler on a Wintry Lake” depicts what you might expect: a fisherman in a small boat; watching, waiting for a fish to come to his line. Aside from the fisherman, his boat, and a few ripples surrounding it, the page is empty. The intentionality and the meaning in the empty spaces of this painting are the same things that draw me to Alex Camilleri’s film Luzzu.

Written and directed by Alex Camilleri, Luzzu follows Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna), a fisherman from Malta, as he struggles to support his family. The film is one of Malta’s first feature films that emphasizes locality, as it stars Maltese non-actors. Jesmark is a young man from a long line of fishermen. Anchored in tradition (I’m sorry I had to), Jesmark fishes from a colorful wooden boat that has been passed down for generations. He is one of a handful of fisherman that still makes their living using the traditional luzzu style of boat. Warmer climates and fishing charters that damage the ocean’s ecosystem have made it increasingly hard for fishermen like Jesmark to make a living. With a newborn child, Jesmark’s wife, Denise (Michaela Farrugia), puts an increasing amount of pressure on him to earn more money so they can keep their child healthy.

Scicluna’s acting is what most draws me to make the comparison to Ma Yuan’s painting. Scicluna shows a wide array of emotion but with little expression on his face. There is an emptiness to his emotions that impart a deeper sense of what he’s feeling than any furrowed brow or teary eye. As Jesmark is slowly forced to resort to more desperate means of income, Scicluna’s acting remains steady and without grand gestures. The emptiness of his face creates a focus on his eyes. Small variations in how they are opened, rhythm of blinking , and duration of a stare are enough for him to create dramatic intrigue. Camilleri deserves credit for his work with non-actors. Together, the two create a solemn, intense, and authentic character.

Ma Yuan’s paintings use little, if any, color. The contrast between shades is what creates the picture with positive spaces that juxtapose the emptiness of his canvas. Camilleri and cinematographer Léo Lefèvre show how juxtaposition can be used with color film to evoke emotion. The bright colors of the luzzus stand out in the solid blue ocean, the sandy beaches, and monochromatic streets. The image that remains in my mind is a luzzu sitting amongst trash in a junkyard. The single image carries the weight of a dying tradition. A single boat surrounded by a brown canvas of junk.

Slow and beautiful, but still action packed, Luzzu never lost me when I watched it. Jesmark is a character that is constantly beaten down, but however drastic the solution is that he resorts to, he never loses the quiet determination that grabbed me when the first conflict arose.

Joel Dull | lost at sea | KXSU Digital Media Director

Luzzu premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and will be distributed by Memento Films.

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