A still of Jesmark, the name of the man in real life, fishing in his Luzzu.

Every so often an independent film comes along that is truly distinctive. Luzzu, directed and produced by Maltese American filmmaker Alex Camilleri, is such a film. Luzzu premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 29, 2021, to positive reviews. It would go on to be selected as Malta’s Academy Awards entry for “Best International Feature Film.” 

The film is notable for being the only feature film entirely in the Maltese language. Luzzu gives viewers a chance to learn about Maltese culture and language through a compelling story. When Luzzu was released in Malta, audiences felt joy at watching a film in their language, starring actual Maltese people. 

The film chronicles a difficult time in the life of Jesmark, a fisherman in Malta. Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna, a fisherman in real life) is struggling to make ends meet from his fishing, a tradition he desperately wants to continue, partially in honor of his father and family before him. A particularly moving scene occurs when Jesmark paints the bottom of his son’s foot and presses it against the inside of his luzzu (a traditional fishing boat), leaving his son’s footprint. Beside it is another infant footprint, presumably Jesmark’s. 

As a result of chronic overfishing in the area, in 2017 the European Union put a cap on the amount of fish that the Maltese fleet could catch annually. This forced many smaller fishermen, like Jesmark, to consider decommissioning their luzzus, and accept an European Union buyout. 

Though Luzzu documents a real phenomenon, the screenplay focuses on a personal story of one man and his family. Jesmark’s newborn son is having health problems; his wife is forced to take up extra work and ask for money from her mother, something Jesmark is unaware of for much of the film. Out of despair, Jesmark turns to selling fish on the black market. He suddenly finds himself in unanticipated and at times dangerous situations, all in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. 

In recent years there has been a rise in films set and filmed in microstates and underrepresented countries. Many are also directed, written, and acted by people from these countries. Some examples include the Luxembourg film Blind Spot; the Lesotho film Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You; and the Cypriot film The Boy on the Bridge

Luzzu borrows its name from the traditional fishing boats used in Malta since the early twentieth century. The word luzzu derives perhaps from the Sicilian guzzu. The boats are famous for their vivid, colorful paint and protruding eyes on the bow of the boat. 

Most of Luzzu’s cast consists of untrained actors (including many fishermen), highlighting real Maltese people and their lives. Even Jesmark Scicluna, the film’s lead, had never acted prior to being approached by director Camilleri. It’s a confident debut that won a Special Jury Award for Acting at Sundance. 

In a number of scenes, we see Jesmark repairing his leaky luzzu, with other fishermen helping to assist in replacing parts. Jesmark wonders if everything has been replaced on the boat, is it still the same boat? Is it still the luzzu he grew up with? Or is he hopelessly hanging on to something that is vanishing before his eyes? At one point, we see a number of decommissioned luzzus in a junkyard: their eyes seem to plead for rescue. It’s a reminder that Jesmark’s story isn’t unique.

The subject and techniques used in Luzzu aren’t entirely new. In 1948, the Italian director Luchino Visconti produced La Terra Trema, a masterpiece of neorealism that documents the struggle of poor Sicilian fishermen and their families to stay alive, employing a mix of scripted and unscripted scenes shot with local residents. 

Luzzu offers a similar blend of fact and fiction. The film touches on issues of environmental degradation, overfishing, the effects of financial strain on a marriage, and the decisions people make in order to make ends meet. Watching Luzzu forces us to confront some painful moral quandaries. 

In recent years there has been a push in some maritime countries to protect traditional ways of fishing, or hunting whales, even if this runs serious environmental risks. In Malta itself, overfishing, according to many local scuba divers, has already turned the sea “into a beautiful cemetery,” with lovely reefs but no other visible marine life in sight.  

Are these trade-offs worth making? Camilleri doesn’t claim to have answers but he does know how to dramatize a wrenching dilemma.

Stella Crouch is a BA/MA student at The New School.