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Friday Film Review -- 'Luzzu'


The Sundance Festival  has handed out its awards for 2021.  But a lesser-known film from the online Fest, Luzzu has received the coveted Black Diamond rating from our own Mark Harrington who has this week’s Friday Film Review.   

Hopefully by now, you are plugged into some online film forum exceeding that of your local band of merry Friday Film Reviewers, and consequently, you have heard of award winners like CODA and "Judas and the Black Messiah, or that Summer of Soul is the next Twenty Feet From Stardom.  But, I often like to call out a lower profile film at the end of the festival, and this year, without the opportunity for word of mouth buzz on the shuttles, theater lines or cafes, I felt it particularly important to draw attention to one such gem. 

Luzzu is a type of Maltese fishing boat unique to the postcard fishing villages on the small island between Sicily and Libya.  The small, colorful boats are handed down from generation to generation, adorned with a pair of eyes on the bow to protect fishermen while at sea. Director Alex Camilleri’s family is from Malta and he spent over two years researching and working with his lead cast, real local fishermen Jesmark and his cousin David. Jesmark is struggling with challenges to the sustainability of his fishing business, including a leak in the boat he can’t afford to fix, rigged fish auctions, and mounting EU red-tape and quotas. These trials lead Jesmark to test new waters involving smuggling and local black markets. 

This is where the film’s fictional narrative emerges, as Jesmark’s fishing troubles are amplified when he becomes anchored with mounting obligations as a new father. His wife, played by trained actress Michela Farrugia, is from a wealthy family with higher expectations. Greater conflict arises from managing the young couple’s ailing newborn which leads to exploring what would drive Jesmark to shrug off working for larger trawlers due to environmental principles, yet rationalize crossing other fishermen to exploit black markets. Jesmark’s decisions navigate various risks and sacrifices as he balances new priorities while simultaneously enduring the loss of a multi-generational way a life.

The film’s tension builds as we wonder if Jesmark will throw his mother in law overboard, or whether he’ll get caught during riskier and riskier exploits under the dark of night, which mostly makes for entertaining viewing.  But the film’s naturalism transports audiences in a way that transcends its simple plot line. These gritty characters and the wonderful Maltese landscape give the film more weight to subtly re-explore the increasingly universal themes of survival in the face of certain environmental change and traditional paths conflicting with family obligation. The vertite and trained cast merge seamlessly and a restrained but poignant final act ensures the characters’ lingering staying power with audiences afar.

So, on my ski trail rating system, Luzzu earns my highest Black Diamond ski trail rating. Director Alex Camilleri does his homeland proud with a beautifully packaged film, buoyed by naturalistic delivery of a simple but compelling narrative. Camilleri’s risk casting real life fishermen successfully achieves the desired authenticity, rewarded with a Sundance Special Jury Award for Acting, and brings a new lense to a familiar struggle.  

Luzzu is not yet rated but contains language, and eyes, lots and lots of gazing eyes.  Luzzu's future release is TBD - distribution rights were picked up right before the start of the festival by Memento Films International. 

This is Mark Harrington for KPCW’s Friday Film Review.

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