Connect with us

Film

Luzzu Review: Alex Camilleri’s Fine-Grained Paean to a Vanishing Way of Life

Luzzu retains the structure of a neorealist film, as well as its themes of class and desperation.

2.5
Luzzu
Photo: Kino Lorber

Near the end of Luzzu, a Maltese fisherman, Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna), tells his infant son a story, essentially a version of the ship of Theseus thought experiment, though the man substitutes a humble fishing boat for the ship. Belonging to everyone and no one at the same time, the boat feeds a village for many years. When it’s outlived its usefulness, the villagers place it in the village square to serve as a monument. As time passes, the boat begins to slowly fall apart and the villagers replace it piece by piece until, eventually, every piece of it is new, posing again the ancient conundrum: Is it still the same boat?

We might apply this thought experiment to the film itself, as Alex Camilleri’s feature-length directorial debut doesn’t merely evoke, it deliberately resurrects the spirit of Italian neorealism, going so far as to transpose the basic plot to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves from post-war Rome to contemporary Malta. The working-class protagonist, the non-professional actors, the documentary aesthetic—all the essential ingredients are present. Standing in for the bicycle is the eponymous luzzu, a traditional Maltese fishing boat that’s brightly painted and constructed from wood instead of fiberglass, with a pair of expressive eyes on its bow that recall the Ancient Greek practice of painting eyes on triremes.

Jesmark and his wife, Denise (Michela Farrugia), depend on the meager income that he brings in from fishing, like his grandfather and great grandfather before him, but when their child is diagnosed with a growing disorder and the luzzu springs a severe leak, they’re forced to make a series of compromising decisions. Denise turns to her middle-class, overbearing mother (Frida Cauchi) for help, while Jesmark, who prizes self-sufficiency above all, falls in with the black-market fishing crowd, in a sort of extrapolation of the scene in Bicycle Thieves where Antonio succumbs to desperation and attempts to replace his stolen bicycle by stealing someone else’s.

A demoralizing choice confronts Jesmark in the end: He can hand over his fishing license and decommission the luzzu that’s served his family for generations in exchange for a lump sum from the EU, which is aiming to reduce the fishing fleet and its environmental impact, or he can risk losing his family’s independence for the sake of a vanishing way of life.

If the characters and context feel contemporary, Luzzu retains the structure of a neorealist film, as well as its themes of class and desperation, just as the structure of the boat in the thought experiment remains unchanged. Camilleri’s treatment of the neorealist framework as a formal archetype, for better or worse, may be compared to modern adaptations of ancient myths, but the question remains, is it still the same boat, or something new?

For it to prove evergreen, a retrofitted neorealism should provoke something resembling the response that it did in postwar Italy and around the world. Camilleri’s most significant departures from his influences take place on the level of content, but, thankfully, they strain the integrity of the neorealist framework just enough to keep Luzzu fresh, if not revolutionary.

With Jesmark’s foray into the black market, Luzzu’s second half begins to resemble a neo-noir, with Malta’s sunny, postcard-ready marinas giving way to an underbelly of corrupt officials, fake scallops, and backstabbing fishermen. The stakes are intensified by environmental anxiety, compatible with neorealism to be sure, if not endemic to it. As Jesmark’s shady boss (Stephen Buhagiar) admits, within 10 years the whole industry in Malta will be kaput, thanks to overfishing and rising temperatures. Shots of freighters cramming the horizon, stacked to the sky with shipping containers, are a persistent reminder of the inertia of global capitalism.

One brief sequence that has nothing to do with realism nearly eclipses the rest of Camilleri’s film. Several luzzus await decommissioning in a junkyard, their gaudy paintjobs standing out against the surrounding scrap. A series of shot-reverse shots draws a web of sightlines between the eyes on their bows, each pair unique, imbued with its own personality, creating the impression of a conversation between the boats. So imaginative, so unexpected in a context that implicitly polemicizes against anything fantastical, this sequence gestures beyond the dour fatalism that Luzzu ends up reinforcing, perhaps in spite of itself, toward the utopianism of the boat in Jesmark’s story, owned by everyone and no one.

Cast: Jesmark Scicluna, Michela Farrugia, David Scicluna, Frida Cauchi, Uday McLean, Stephen Buhagiar Director: Alex Camilleri Screenwriter: Alex Camilleri Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2021 Buy: Video

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Sign up to receive Slant’s latest reviews, interviews, lists, and more, delivered once a week into your inbox.
Invalid email address

Trending