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Review: A triumph of classical storytelling, ‘Luzzu’ captures the struggles of a fisherman

A man and a woman lean on a boat in the movie “Luzzu.”
Jesmark Scicluna and Michela Farrugia in the movie “Luzzu.”
(Kino Lorber)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

Bright-colored vessels with curious carved eyes, luzzu fishing boats dot the coast of Malta, an island nation most often seen in cinema as an old-world Mediterranean location. In Maltese American director Alex Camilleri’s terrific debut, “Luzzu,” only the country’s second-ever entry for the Academy Awards, they float as symbolic anchors to tradition.

Successfully praying at the altar of the masters of Italian neorealism (Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti), Camilleri weaves a stirringly nuanced and dazzlingly shot humanistic drama at once focused on Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna), a financially strapped lifelong fisherman and young father, and modern society’s unappeasable march in favor of production.

Anger mounts in Jesmark since regulations and large operations have made fishing untenable for independent mariners like him, driving many to leave for employment on trawlers or in factories. Still, he refuses to surrender the ancestral trade of his people. Jesmark’s own baby footprint stamped on his storied and tattered luzzu, passed down through generations, testifies to a deeply rooted legacy that may be in its final days.

Referring to Scicluna simply as a nonprofessional actor seems reductive. A better description: He’s a previously undiscovered innate talent whose sun-toasted skin and pensive expression evoke the timelessness of ruggedly labored yet not unkind masculinity. In a performance of extraordinary subtlety and restrained fury, he carries the headstrong Jesmark into dabbling in riskier avenues for income to pay for his son’s medical expenses.

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The measured urgency in the movement of cinematographer Léo Lefèvre’s camera mimics that of the working-class hero’s plight to provide for his family. Postcard-ready vistas of Malta glide around gritty, much less flattering images of its underbelly, all submerged in Jon Natchez’s enrapturing score. Conflicted, Jesmark ponders whether to hold on to his identity or retire his father’s moving heirloom for the sake of survival in the tide of globalization.

Sun-drenched “Luzzu” is an unaffected triumph with a simmering power, the type of deceivingly familiar film that helps us sail into a place and a lifestyle most of us ignore but that are made vividly compelling in the hand of a new storyteller with classically honed sensibilities.

‘Luzzu’

In Maltese with English subtitles

Not Rated

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 22, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse, 7 Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino


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