Poverty is an oppressive, depressive, stressful, and corrosive state. Those who bear its burdens were born or thrust into it by circumstances beyond their control. When you are poor, your life is a constant search for a way up and out.

Many of the working poor are just one step away from catastrophe. An illness, car trouble, and higher prices for food and household goods can take their toll. With these troubles come anger and disappointment as the poor see growing gap between the rich and themselves. All these aspects of poverty are illustrated in this gripping movie.

Maltese fisherman at the market

Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) is a Maltese fisherman whose father and grandfather before him loved their work – going out to sea in their beautiful hand-painted boats, fishing the traditional way with nets and lines, sorting and cleaning their catch, and selling it in the local market. Although tradition has its place in the village, it cannot hold back the troubles which cascade upon Jesmark.

First is the lack of fish, due to larger fishing operations in the area. Then his beloved boat — a Luzzu inherited from his father — needs to be repaired. Then he and his wife (Michela Farrugia) learn that their infant son is not thriving as he should and requires an expensive feeding regimen. When she turns to her middle-class parents for help, Jesmark experiences self-doubt and guilt for not being able to provide for his family.

Michela Farrugia and Jesmark Scicluna as the couple in Luzzu

Not many movies deal with the plight of poor people not on our radar like these Maltese fishermen. Here we are struck by the hard choice Jesmark has to make. Does he continue to try to make a living as a fisherman or does he accept a payout from the European Union for decommissioning his Luzzu and go to work for the very fishing operation he despises?

First time writer-director-editor Alex Camilleri has made a heart-rending drama about one man’s desperate scramble to come up with the money he needs to pay his bills. In this story, the director sees a struggle between tradition and modernity. “It seems every family has a Luzzo,” he observes. Perhaps that’s why we were so sad watching the scene at the loyal junkyard where we saw the remains of hundreds of Luzzus, the eyes painted on their bows seeming to plead with us to save them.

Reeee Vella as the priest blessing the fishing boats

One of many surprises in Luzzu is the appearance of the priest who blesses the boats in the harbor and Jesmark’s on shore after it is repaired. He brings light and a hint of grace to a community whose life is being drained from it by outside forces such as government quotas, corrupt inspectors, and European Union policies.