Film Review | Simshar

Rebecca Cremona’s based-on-a-true-story account of the Simshar tragedy has been touted at the ‘great white hope’ of Maltese cinema – but does it live up to expectations?

Chrysander Agius in Simshar
Chrysander Agius in Simshar

Simshar, the long-awaited Maltese feature film co-written and directed by Rebecca Cremona, is far from perfect.

In many ways, its flaws are the kind of flaws you encounter in a debut film of any kind. If anything, its slightly creaky middle-section and its ambitious-by-comparison scope are indicative of the kind of move a debuting storyteller makes when they’re starting out.

But the film also comes burdened with the pressure of being the first ‘bona fide’ feature film to emerge from Malta. And by bona fide I here mean a film we can proudly showcase to an international audience – which simply wasn’t possible with any previous offerings our filmmakers had dished out in local cinemas.

So it’s to Cremona’s credit – and that of her cast and crew, of course: she once told me that “half the island” was somehow roped in to make Simshar a reality – that the film works as a coherent whole: its pacing may be creaky in parts, with some of the acting leaving much to be desired – but it’s also a politically sensitive, sumptuously shot drama that ultimately delivers an emotional punch.

Set around the real-life ‘Simshar’ tragedy which occurred in 2008, the film – co-written by Rebecca Cremona and David Grech – takes as its starting point the accident involving the titular fishing boat, which left Simon Bugeja’s (Lotfi Abdelli) 11-year-old son Theo (Adrian Farrugia) and father Karmenu (Jimi Busuttil) dead at sea.

A parallel story, also in the Mediterranean, zooms in on the fate of a medic, Alex (Mark Mifsud), who is ordered to stay on a boat harbouring rescued African migrants, which Malta and Italy refuse access to, while his friend John (Chrysander Agius) struggles with the migrant situation on the ground.

As the incident erupts, Simon’s wife Sharin (Clare Agius) is left grasping for answers, and as the story toggles between the Bugejas’ Marsaxlokk community, the Turkish Merchant vessel which has rescued a group of stranded African boat people between Malta and Italy and the scene of the tragedy itself, another victim risks being claimed: diligent migrant worker Moussa (Sékouba Doucouré), hired by Simon to help them on an off-the-radar fishing expedition.

The real-life story clearly crackles with dramatic potential from the word go: there’s a family tragedy at its (human) centre, though the film is of course framed by the perennially problematic reality of irregular migration.

Simshar is at its best when it’s bringing us into this world, eking out the universal from a very local, headline-grabbing event. Cinematographer Chris Freilich and production designers Nina Gerada and Jonathan Hagos are to be commended for breathing life to the Marsaxlokk setting in particular. Whether they’re representing the daily bustle of the fishing village or the chaos of the festa, the place feels lived-in and immersive, never a picture-postcard depiction.

It’s also just as well that our real entry point into the story comes not from an overarching polemic about immigration but through the struggles of the local fishing community: the real reason Simon and his father embark on their risky journey is down to the fact that EU bureaucracy is stifling their trade.

Sadly, too many discordant notes pollute the film to be ignored. Though Cremona justifies the casting of Tunisian actor Abdelli in the leading role as being chiefly down to the fact that the production needed a “name” actor to attract international partners, the fact remains that his accent will grate with local audiences (granted, this will probably not be the case once – and if – the film is shown abroad).

Though Jimi Busuttil delivers an effective and refreshingly earnest performance that never rings false, some of the local actors struggle in their roles too. Agius and Mifsud appear stuck in ‘Maltese television’ mode, never quite succeeding in going beyond one set emotional register – a resting ‘serious face’; brows knit in perpetual concern – which isn’t an insignificant flaw given that their characters are meant to stand in for the ambivalent attitude most Maltese people feel towards migrants.

Alex’s character arc is also somewhat problematic. An early outburst positions him as a bit of an intolerant jerk; an ethical quandary he recovers from in a flash to become the effective hero of the piece (he even gets something resembling a romantic connection with boat-bound migrant and de facto translator Makeda – a tastefully understated performance by Laura Kpegli). Arguably, film would actually have been served better by a mini-series structure, which would have allowed the plot’s separate strands to unfold at a clearer, more leisurely pace.

As is the case with any film based on a well-publicised tragedy, we sadly know how it’s all going to end, which naturally takes some of the sting out of the build up of suspense. But as the film narrows to a close, Cremona succeeds in creating a genuine emotional crescendo, tugging at the heartstrings but never descending into melodrama.

Simshar is a passable ‘indie’ drama: no more, no less. That it can’t help but wearing its rough-and-tumble nature on its sleeve is, therefore, quite expected.