Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 01, 2021 2:10 pm 
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Maltese fisherman must give up his ancestral job

Luzzu is the kind of neorealist docudrama that never quite goes out of style. Not when it's about someplace unfamiliar or new (yet perennial) social problems. The luzzu is an archaic small fishing boat indigenous to the island of Malta, where this takes place. It's most unusual to see a movie actually set in Malta, and the dialogue may be the first time you've heard the Maltese language, a unique combination of Arabic, Italian and Sicilian with some English thrown in. Unlike Arabic or its many local dialects it's written in roman letters and has no diglossic linguistic relationship with classical or modern standard Arabic yet it's a Semitic language included in the European Union. The language dramatizes what a peculiar mixture these people are.

The protagonist, Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) is a handsome, square-jawed young fisherman and son and grandson of fishermen who fished with the same luzzu boat, which for them was sustainable. In the current economic climate it's not. The movie piles problems on Jes and his wife Denise (Michela Farrugia), The old fishing boat leaks and requires extensive repair, which may not be enough. The couple's baby boy has growth problems requiring special diet and regular visits to expensive specialists. The local wholesale fish market appears corrupt, or at least discriminates against Jes and his father, whom he fishes with while his luzzu awaits repair. Regulations are so strict now Jes's father insists - following a dutiful call from his boat to the local fishing authorities on his cell phone to ask - very much against Jes's wishes - on throwing back a swordfish (dead because they die the minute they're out of water) which would have netted them hundreds of euros.

The safe alternative, a steady paycheck, for Jes would be going to work on a trawler. But he knows those damage the sea bed and he will not work a job that destroys the environment his family has been part of for generations. But while he is righteous, a big negative problem is his anger and big mouth. He is becoming persona non grata with a gathering number of people in the trade he has offended. It's classic, really: the biggest problems here are Jes and his luzzu - and they are where the movie hooks up our sympathies from frame one. Nothing is subtle here. But nothing gets in the way, either. So we are drawn in when Jes is tempted to throw in his lot with a lucrative but dangerous illegal black market operation having nothing to do with the sea.

Camilleri is a new voice on the world cinema scene who works in the neorealist tradition of early Visconti, Rossellini, the Dardenne brothers, and an American mentor, Ramin Bahrani, the Iranian American from the South whose early films, Man Push Cart (ND/NF 2006), and Goodbye Solo had a pleasing authenticity. He has gone in other, less effective directions with his socially conscious filmmaking since but producing efforts like this one are always welcome.

Luzzu,, 94 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2021 (Sciciluna won an acting award at Sundance, where the film was nominated for the world Best Picture prize). It was also included in the Tronheiim Norway virtual fest, Sofia, and Hong Kong Screened online for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021).

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