The social realist credentials of last week’s release Between Two Worlds may have been scuppered by a focus on cinema royalty, but no such accusation can be levelled at Alex Camilleri’s quietly brooding debut Luzzu. A super-authentic drama about the fishing industry in Malta starring Maltese fishermen, it’s a gorgeous but entirely clear-eyed depiction of a dwindling livelihood.

Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna, intense and cinematically handsome) is struggling to make ends meet fishing on his ancient luzzu, a traditional Maltese fishing vessel. Along with diminishing yields, his luzzu has a leak and his newborn son has developmental issues that require specialist treatments. With the financial situation causing a rift between Jesmark and his wife Denise (Michela Farrugia), he turns to the corrupt black market fishing industry in search of money for his family.

Luzzu feels very much in the neo-realist tradition of Italian masters like Rossellini and De Sica, in that Camilleri establishes an incredibly immersive sense of place through close focus on his location and the characters who inhabit it. Cinematographer Léo Lefèvre beautifully contrasts the stunning blaze of the sunlight as it bounces off the idyllically decrepit harbours and the the brightly coloured luzzus, with the crepuscular night and the sickly sterility of the fish markets. The effect is to slyly corollate day with the purity of the old traditions, and night with the moral murk of illicit maritime activity. It’s an effective piece of narrative semiotics, but Luzzu is far more nuanced and less sentimental than that.

At first it appears that this is a straight tale of someone forced by modernity and economics to sell out their principles for a quick buck. There is that element there, but a story like that is usually accompanied by some dramatic punishment for the bartering of their soul. Camilleri and his cast of lifelong fisherman certainly indulge in a twanging pulse of elegy, but this is a deeply pragmatic tale which combines the authenticity and expertise of its native protagonists with the surgical outsider’s eye of the Maltese-American Camilleri.

Narratively the film chimes with Mark Jenkin‘s aesthetically diametrically-opposed Bait. Thematically though, it plays like a bronzed Mediterranean cousin of Chloé Zhao‘s The Rider. As with the cowboy forced to reconsider his life in Zhao’s recent classic, Jesmark’s masculine identity is inextricably tied in with his profession. The luzzu was originally his great-grandfather’s, so Jesmark equates fishing with being a man. Part of the rift with Denise is his chafed pride as she becomes the higher earner and seeks help from her mother, who looks down on Jesmark and the fishing industry in general. As with the other elements of the story nothing is spelled out, but it’s in the set of Jesmark’s jaw, the moodiness of his stare, the way it softens when he looks at his son.

As Jesmark descends deeper into the profitable but shady underside of the industry, Luzzu stalls a little, but soon regains a strong dramatic current that is deftly both satisfying, moving, and ambiguous. Camilleri shows that a film can be heartfelt and passionate without huge, melodramatic events and sugary messages. This is as authentic and bracing as the sting of salty air or a seagull’s gimlet eye casing your fish and chips. Luzzu may be, in the director’s own words, a ‘crazy’ labour of love, but the results are wonderful.

Screening @ Filmhouse, Edinburgh until Thu 9 Jun 2022