Film review | Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi: island thriller takes a trip to the 1980s

Adaptation of Alex Vella Gera novel whose twist allows it to stay afloat in a sea of difficult character interpretations, politics and power

Chris Galea (left) and Joe Azzopardi in Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi
Chris Galea (left) and Joe Azzopardi in Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi

Spoiler alert

Alex Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi was never a book about a failed assassination attempt on Dom Mintoff. To me at least, the story has always been centred around fatherhood, because Noel Sammut Petri murders the man who could have well been his own father’s murderer, even though he is none the wiser about the foiled 1980s plot that his desaparecido dad and construction magnate Roger Tabone had planned together. Instead Noel takes his son, Tabone’s own grandson, away to Morocco with him. And now it’s him who is the fugitive, running away from a Malta of new money and neoliberal tribalism.

Martin Bonnici’s film adaption of the same book is a welcome addition to a Maltese line-up of films whose audiences are craving to see more stories about who they are and where they came from. And capturing the heady mix of Malta’s anti-Labour ‘resistance’ from the 1980s and the moneyed brats let loose in the boom economy of the 1990s, was always going to be a tough act for any director.

So audiences of Sriep should be ready to divorce themselves from Vella Gera’s plot and to settle for a whodunnit that sees main character Noel Sammut Petri (Chris Galea) being sucked into the belly of the Tabone family, and a dangerous quest for truth.

From a flagging first half, it is Teodor Reljic’s adaptation of the novel that allows this film to pick up tempo into a suitable, indeed very satisfactory ending. It is this masterful conclusion that places the film’s story within a narrative of our own times, of more localised problems: power. Money too, of course, but ultimately, the power that money can buy over the lives of others; the same money that allows the Tabones’ Solidair construction company to alter the townscapes of the Maltese villages it raids. Even the beloved childhood home of Noel, for which his friend and Solidair scion Roger junior, convincingly portrayed by Joe Azzopardi (The Boat, 2019), proposes turning into a boutique hotel. A tale of our times, surely.

With a story placed at the cusp of Labour’s return to power in 2013, Noel’s return to Malta from Brussels for his mother’s funeral reunites him with friends from the past: the Tabones. The patriarch Roger snr (Joseph Zammit) was once close to Noel’s father, who mysteriously disappeared back in the mid-1980s. But at this intersection in Maltese political history, it’s no longer ‘ideology’ or ‘values’ that propel a reactionary middle-class against the ham-fisted socialist reforms of the 1980s or Labour’s demands for Church schools to be free of charge. Now it is money, and for the Tabones, “Joseph is our man”... because that’s how democracy (bank)rolls.

Noel is welcomed into the Solidair fold by Roger snr, and finds himself in the family way with his daughter, passionately portrayed by Erica Muscat. But the pull of his father’s unresolved disappearance is too much for Noel to resist, and the only answer he will ever get is held up the sleeve of Roger senior, who back in the 1980s shared with Sammut Petri’s father a conspiratorial bond and a pathological hatred of Mintoffianism.

In many respects, Martin Bonnici’s valiant attempt at retelling Sriep suffers from pitfalls that too many are accustomed to in the young Maltese film industry. Better production certainly costs money (although the film’s props and settings are exquisite, and political geeks will enjoy seeing Rothmans Blue switched for Red as the years go by…). No need for odious comparisons in an island where the leap into higher gear can be daunting for any industry – film, art, even the press itself.

Yet, it is true that some of the actors in Sriep have never left the theatre stage. Theatricality and over-performativeness can leave us wondering who the star of the film really is, even with Galea’s heartfelt portrayal of the troubled Noel.

As it happens, it is Joe Azzopardi’s turbo-pépé yuppie Roger jnr who allows us to properly frame the Tabone family’s evolution from nouveau-riche princelings, into entitled construction royalty. Since the anglophone affectation runs deep in this Maltese sub-species, not all actors are able to master the Sliema patois, which is why Theresa Gauci’s portrayal of the pickled Tabone mater is more village panto than town-and-country. And Paul Portelli’s baritone drawl as the mysterious Major Spiteri evokes a certain villainy as the unscrupulous ultra-Catholic mastermind... but in my mind, his motley crew of PN avengers were probably Maltese-speaking party men more prone to guarding the party clubs at night or sleeping on the hallowed doorstep of Fenech Adami.

Even some of the story’s devices could have been better crafted: some historical info-dump from 1979’s Black Monday crops up in a conversation in 1984, the Connelly & Pye cheques come in way too early, and the Tabone gopher’s insulin shock seemed unnecessary (why not please the audience and beat the shit out of Ronald Briffa?).

And it is at this moment of doubt that Reljic’s script whips up a fitting, merciless end to the fate of those who ask too many questions, whose quest for truth sits uncomfortably with power, concretised – in more ways than one – with an image of Malta that is grey and unforgiving. Again, a story of our times.