Review by Sean Boelman
Winner of a Special Jury Award for acting in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the Maltese film Luzzu is minimalistic in its approach, for better or worse. Telling a simple story very simply, there are some strong moments throughout the movie, but not enough to allow it to have the intended impact.
The film follows a fisherman who risks everything to provide for his wife and newborn son by getting involved in the black-market illegal fishing industry. There’s a lot here that shows the potential to be really interesting, but for the most part, it ends up being just another tale of a man who the world seemingly has it out for.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the movie is that it doesn’t make much of anything with its themes. On one hand, this is a film about the social class system in Malta, following a member of the working class who toils every day only to be exploited by those in more favorable conditions. Then there is also the part of the movie about the environmental regulations and the black market. Unfortunately, neither of these are explored with much substance.
Instead, what we get is a dramatic thriller pretty much divided into two halves. The first part shows the character’s entire world falling down around him, before he starts to rebuild it in the second part only for it to collapse again. It’s a series of beats that we have seen done again and again without much in the way of variation.
Unfortunately, the film does not have the depth in its character work to justify redoing these beats. Although we sympathize with the protagonist for his plight as the sole provider for a young family, there isn’t much more to the character than that. There’s a thread about the protagonist’s relationship with his legacy coming from a long line of fishermen, but this isn’t all that interesting.
That said, the acting in the movie certainly does impress. Non-professional actor (and actual fisherman) Jesmark Scicluna does an excellent job in his leading role. Of course, his expertise in the area makes all of the physical fishing scenes feel authentic, but he also does an exceptional job pulling off the dramatic, dialogue-oriented moments.
The film is also strong on a technical level. The use of color in the movie is great, which is fitting since the title comes from the name of the colorful fishing boats used by fishermen such as the protagonist. And the sense of claustrophobia created in the market scenes goes a long way in creating a sense of tension.
Luzzu is a film with a lot of good ideas and plenty of strong moments, but they don’t boil down into anything especially noteworthy. It works best as an acting showcase for its non-professional star, although that may not be enough to make it worth going out of your way to see.
Luzzu is now in theaters and virtual cinemas.