Even when Luzzu is ashore, it’s always among the waves. The urgent, almost too much so, and near-documentary style Alex Camilleri has employed to tell the story he directed, written, edited and co-produced (with Rahmin Bahrani) seems to support this.

And despite having eyes, presence, tradition, lineage — all elements usually would be found on a luzzu, or its riverbound Vietnamese cousin tắc ráng — as well as a place in the title, the subject in Camilleri’s film is less the boat and more its skipper, both denizens of the island nation of Malta. Mere moments after seeing the starring luzzu, Ta’ Palma, in action, we see its operator Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) grounding it until he could have the finances to patch a hazardous leak. There will be no beelining to that task’s completion, however, when Jesmark’s newborn son is not developing properly, his wife Denise (Michela Farrugia) reasonably finds it more ideal to seek assistance from her parents, and the boss (Stephen Buhagiar) keeps on selling his catch below agreeable numbers.

In the steely gaze and just-warm-enough aura Scicluna has Jesmark projecting, one detects two things — the fleeting echoes of James Frecheville’s screen debut in Animal Kingdom and a character while admirably committed yet susceptible to pride. Much like the Australian familial crime drama, for survival Jesmark has to glide toward illegal activities — netting and selling closed-season fish, like that time he caught the boss and his men in the act. Scicluna makes the character’s switch from family man to criminal convincing, even though he could have added a couple more dramatic notes. The reservedness, though, works as it serves the underlying portrayal of masculine expectations. In the bluntest of terms, Jesmark can’t make the sea his nourishment like his father and his father before him, all predecessors of his luzzu. And when he can, none of the bank from the catch is from being on the luzzu. He is actively fending off opportunities for anyone and anything to brand him “a failure.”

Senior programmer John Nein and director Alex Camilleri at the virtual Premiere of Luzzu by Alex Camilleri, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

But for this observation to materialize, it would mean that Luzzu prefers to communicate through elements more subtle, or the less-obvious battles. Jesmark is far from the only Maltese fisher making a living, but his competition isn’t with another person — it’s with inspectors, quotas, European Union’s policies and the environment (replace the Brussels-based body with the U.S. and you will have matters that another Sundance entry, Siân Heder’s CODA, also cover). While they and their actions mean well, they remain affected by a classic, longstanding failure to see how they are really connected. In that blindness, who and what Jesmark is along with the meaning of the luzzu continue their march toward oblivion. It’s not that he is resistant or ignorant to change; he is ill-prepared for it since the systems in place to ready him for the moment haven’t been functioning holistically. He and folks like him are being eradicated instead of transformed.

Particulars of the plight are highlighted in a couple of gatherings of the fishermen, which are also where Camilleri would switch out his heightened-storytelling self with a documentarian one, and from there tasking Jesmark to be an observer and not a plot advancer. Occasions like this are a double-edged sword — it proves that Luzzu’s canvas can store more than just Jesmark and it reduces Jesmark’s identity in his own narrative.

Yet, whether you approach it as the three-act drama as conceptualized or a lengthy day-in-the-life look per its methods, you will still be validated in the end — all thanks to the winning creative choices in the conclusion. Those choices underscore that what we have seen isn’t just “a man and his boat” — it’s also about how a man, or any person, is a boat constantly searching for harbours to sustain them and their crew on the windy, wily sea of existence. Luzzu has been distinctively gripping throughout, then the climax arrives and it grows into something impactful and lingering.

Rating: ★★★½