(2021) Drama (Kino Lorber) Jesmark Scicluna, Frida Cauchi, Michaela Farrugia, Uday McLean, Yuric Allison, Paul Cilia, Reece Vella, Marcelle Theuma, David Scicluna, Marta Vella, Stephen Buhagiar, Noel Grech, Adrian Farrugia, Thelma Abela, Joseph Scicluna, Michael Sciortino, Sonia Cassar, Dianna Bonnici, Joseph Schiavone, Yorgen Vella, Emmanuel Muscat. Directed by Alex Camilleri
The Mediterranean island of Malta is not exactly a film hotspot. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe by land area, and is full of traditions that go back centuries. Like many other countries, though, it is finding that its traditions are under siege by the economic realities of modern geopolitics.
Jesmark (Je. Scicluna) is a fisherman. He, like his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, have fished from a small, brightly painted wooden boat called a luzzu. However, Jesmark has found, like many of his compatriots, that fishing has been less successful as he is competing with vast trawlers that are able to catch thousands of fish in a single trip where he is struggling to net three or four. He adheres to the rules of the local fisheries board, and works hard. However, he is disquieted by the local fish auctioneers consistently selling his fish below what they are worth, and he is unable to find other buyers for his catch.
To make matters worse, Jesmark has a baby with his girlfriend Denise (M. Farrugia) and that baby is having growth issues, necessitating some expensive baby food, visits to specialists and medications – all expensive and all putting a strain on what little money they are able to save. And to top things off, his beloved boat, the Te Palma, has developed a leak that will not be cheap to repair. “Without a boat, you’ll lose your way,” a fellow fisherman warns. These things have driven a wedge between Jesmark and Denise, and she moves out with his son to live with her mother, who already has a strained relationship with Jesmark, whom she disapproves of.
Jesmark is forced to compromise his ethics, working on the black market selling fish illicitly, some out of season, some off the books. Jesmark indeed feels that he has lost his way, and with the European Union putting pressure on local fishermen to buy back their luzzus and move them into different occupations which Jesmark is extremely reluctant to do, it is looking more and more like he will have little choice if his small family is to survive.
It is unsurprising that Camilleri has a background in documentaries, for this has the look and feel of one. The marketing material describes the film as “neorealist” or “hyper-realistic” and both monikers are true; there is a very authentic vibe here – you can almost smell the salt air and the rotting wood of the docks. That is the mark of a good documentary.
Jesmark Scicluna, who is not a professional actor, is a real find here. Ruggedly handsome with a sober mien (he rarely smiles in the movie nor is there much reason for him to), he has a charismatic personality that leaps off the screen as he fights forces that he doesn’t understand and are way out of his control. It’s an extremely effective performance that is bound to resonate among those who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet even with a good job. If the fishing industry is really as bad as it is made out to be here, he could have a legitimate shot at a career in front of the camera.
The story moves effortlessly from the documentary-like first act into the second act which is more of a crime drama, although one that has little suspense. We feel more the economic squeeze on Jesmark than we do any sort of fear of the consequences if he is to be caught. This leads to an ending that is poignant and well-earned.
Camilleri is a protege of Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) who also produced the film. Like some of his mentor’s best films, Camilleri infuses this film with a sense of how difficult it is to survive when everything is stacked against you, as it is these days. This isn’t an easy movie to watch in the sense that it will take you out of your own troubles; chances are you’ll recognize some of your own troubles in the film. However, the movie is brilliantly acted by a largely amateur cast, wonderfully shot by Léo Lefevre, and certainly worth your time and trouble to seek it out.
REASONS TO SEE: Jesmark is an absolutely magnetic presence. An engaging story that has universal appeal. Perfectly captures the desperation of those living on the edge of a financial abyss.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too quiet and slow-paced for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesmark Scicluna is an actual fisherman in Malta who was cast by Camilleri for the film, along with a number of other fishermen playing – you guessed it, fishermen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kino Marquee
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CODA
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Son of Monarchs