Sundance 2021 review: Luzzu (Alex Camilleri)

During a regular pediatrician appointment, the life of a young fisherman called Jesmark changes for good, when Luzzu’s main character finds out about his son’s condition: the baby is not growing up at the right pace. It needs a different formula than the one he can afford. It needs speech therapy, which implies more bills. Notwithstanding his boat is rotting and in desperate need of deep repair, which he also cannot afford. But his income is indifferent to these changes: there aren’t any fish in his sea. Jesmark, no different from a Camusian narrator confronting the absurdity of life and the meaninglessness of the daily tasks, learns that despite the seeming lack of purpose in Sisyphus’ chore, a reason must be found in the climbing itself, once there is nothing waiting on the top but the beginning of a new fall.

Camilleri, heavily influenced by neorealism, knows exactly the story he wants to tell and therefore does not waste any time with side plots or complex situations. His camera focuses obsessively on Jesmark’s face, thus creating an environment for Jesmark that is more and more claustrophobic by masterfully showing his reactions to it, never the big picture. In one of the most inspiring moments of the film we see two fishermen accidentally catching a swordfish, which is not allowed at that time of the year; an accident that may offer some small help, since because it is forbidden it can be sold for more. Rules and regulations, however, are not made to follow a case-by-case scenario, and they were not written by the men fishing the sea. There is then no point in denying their power, for if caught the fishermen will face a fine. In this absurd context the fish, even though already dead, must be thrown back into the sea. What could be food or an income becomes garbage by the imposition of a system that puts its weights unevenly on the shoulders of the rich and the poor.

Hence, as the outcome for breaking a rule comes as a fine or the prohibition of working, its effects will always hit the poor harder. Jesmark gradually learns that; and as he finds out how fancy restaurants profit from the fishing black market, he decides to join them. Here is where Camilleri’s screenplay deserves more praise, as it never shifts to a crime story scenario. The violence in Jesmark’s life does not come from the police or from other black-market dealers, it comes from not being able to live off his own work no matter how hard he tries. It comes from not being able to provide for his son, it comes from poverty, and poverty is violence.

Ergo, at first Jesmark wakes up, goes fishing, and comes back home to an ever-growing pile of bills and new problems. Later, despite working for the black market, he keeps repeating this routine. He is still waking up, going to work, and coming back home to his bills. What changed, then? Nothing and everything, for what Luzzu’s screenplay understands and pushes further than other narratives on the same topic, is that despite the size of our problems the world never seems to care about them, much less to give us time to resolve one thing before the next one comes up. So beginnings and endings are not that different from each other, and often we just put some things on hold to engage with others, even without having finished the first ones. Going back to Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, “the point is to live”, and by the end of Luzzu we are left with the feeling that Jesmark is trying to do only that regardless of the lack of reasons to explain why such things are happening to him.