Though Malta has provided the backdrop to many a Hollywood blockbuster, there have been very few homegrown films emerging from this small but picturesque Mediterranean isle. Alex Camilleri announces its arrival at Sundance with Luzzu, a stunning piece of gritty social realism that puts the plight of its struggling fishing community under the microscope.

The name of the film refers to the type of vessel used by our hero, Jesmark, as he contends with the pressures besetting him on all sides. Not only has his boat sustained a leak that will require major surgery, but his baby son is suffering from a growth impediment that requires expensive treatment. Add to that dwindling fishery stocks, increasingly stringent legislation, an uncooperative market and a disapproving mother-in-law and Jesmark has his work cut out just to stay afloat.

It’s little wonder, then, that he gravitates gradually but inexorably towards the darker underbelly of the profession, which may operate outside the confines of the law but certainly pays more handsomely. As the tensions resting on his shoulders begin to tighten, Jesmark’s morals slacken. With a girlfriend in full support of his career change and a baby to feed, it’s difficult to blame Jesmark and Camilleri never does, instead focusing more on his abandonment of a way of life that has defined his family for generations and less on the ethical repercussions of his decision.

This decision to romanticise Jesmark’s journey and agonise over what he has left behind (as opposed to navigating the moral quandaries of what lies in front) may detract slightly from the film, but it’s still a touching slow burner which opens up a window into a lifestyle that may well be in its death throes. Add to that the solid and emotionally mature performances from all of the cast – many of whom are real fishermen with no acting experience, including lead Jesmark Scicluna – and you’ve got a gem of a film that manages the tricky feat of appearing both nostalgic for the past and violently contemporary at the same time.

Screened as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021