Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Described by Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer John Nein as “neorealism” that “belongs completely to the now,” Alex Camilleri’s (“Prickly Pear”) “Luzzu” won the 2021 World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting. The first Maltese film to premiere at Sundance and one of few films ever made in Malta, “Luzzu” captures the quintessence of the island nation’s contemporary fishing industry.

Starring a real-life fisherman, Jesmark Scicluna, the film illustrates the challenges facing independent fishermen in Malta, located in the Mediterranean roughly 100 miles south of Sicily. 

Scicluna plays a character of the same name, whose meager catches and insufficient income have placed a financial strain on his family. His son, Aiden, is not growing as he should, and the bills for medical specialists and baby formula force Jesmark to find money elsewhere, against his better ethical judgment. 

Fishermen like Jesmark work in a type of brightly-colored wooden boat called a luzzu, his being a dozen feet long. On the bows of many luzzijiet are painted watchful “eyes,” personifying the boats and lending another layer of emotional charge to the industry’s decline. Often a luzzu is passed down from father to son, as Jesmark’s was. This detail makes his hardships all the more painful.

Thematically, the film deals with the loss of tradition to modernity and industrialization. Jesmark’s crisis of identity and purpose is exacerbated by feelings of inadequacy in the face of his own father’s looming memory, kept alive in his mind and in the stories of his peers. As Jesmark must find a way to make ends meet, his moral struggle is less due to a concern with what is legal or illegal, but with tradition and his role in the ecosystem of Maltese fishing.

Ecology plays an important role in the film, as overfishing and the climate crisis are overtly blamed for the failures of independent fishermen to remain competitive. As a “solution” to this, the European Union has a buyout program in Malta, offering a fisherman cash in exchange for his boat and fishing licenses. There is tremendous shame involved in making a decision like this, especially for a man who sets out on the 100-year-old boat once manned by his father and grandfather.

The subtlety with which Scicluna, not a professional actor, reveals his sense of sorrow and inadequacy makes him deserving of this acting award. He wordlessly communicates whole volumes, the burden that his chapter might be the last in a family saga weighing quietly on his face. 

His character is a principled and traditional yet deeply loving family man who finds himself mostly unsupported in this conflict against the unseen forces of modernization. Watched often by the static, painted eyes of his luzzu and once by the empty, dead eye of an illegally caught swordfish, Jesmark’s psychological and philosophical torment is highly palpable.

Uniquely Maltese, this film will sit comfortably alongside the likes of “Shoplifters” as a contemporary tale shining a light on 21st-century tribulations. As a record of the present state of the climate, I imagine scholars and students will look back on “Luzzu” as a strong example of life for the artisan class in the post-industrial age. Similarly, fathers and sons will watch “Luzzu” with an appreciation for the sensitive portrayal of the sacrifices one makes for one’s family and the struggle to fill storied boots.

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at