Film Review | Limestone Cowboy: Lonesome rider on the campaign trail

Abigail Mallia’s quirky homegrown comedy is a disarmingly heartfelt and refreshingly entertaining addition to the roster of local cinema, and one which may just succeed in winning hearts and minds abroad

Taking the ripe-for-the-picking real life figure of ‘Zaren Tal-Ajkla’ as their jumping off point, the Mallia siblings and Debattista introduce us to Karist Camilleri (Paul Portelli)
Taking the ripe-for-the-picking real life figure of ‘Zaren Tal-Ajkla’ as their jumping off point, the Mallia siblings and Debattista introduce us to Karist Camilleri (Paul Portelli)

One of the biggest bugbears of local cinematic productions is the tendency to over-emphasise unreconstructed elements and notions of ‘Malteseness’. While it’s understandable for creatives and producers to want to emphasise that which makes us unique – as there’s certainly a logic to wanting to make lemonade out of local lemons, even for the sake of garnering international interest – the risk is that this move can backfire, coming across as little more than a postcard treatment of the Maltese islands, instead of a fully-felt aesthetic engagement with our here-and-now that can invite examination as well as simple immersion.

Thankfully, while Abigail Mallia’s Limestone Cowboy certainly does take advantage of both the Maltese landscape (rural and urban) and turbulent episodes of recent history to craft its story of a quixotic protagonist, the script by Jon Mallia and Carlos Debattista remains focused on the human narrative at hand, wisely prioritising story structure and character arcs instead of coasting on local flavour.

Indeed, the root of the story is so loaded with local peculiarities that gilding it any further would have been superfluous anyway. Taking the ripe-for-the-picking real life figure of ‘Zaren Tal-Ajkla’ as their jumping off point, the Mallia siblings and Debattista introduce us to Karist Camilleri (Paul Portelli), who decides to make a go for the general elections as an independent candidate after he is once again barred from doing so under the Labour Party banner, despite his family’s historical devotion to that same party – as evidenced in an extended flashback in which Mark Doneo plays the socialist Camilleri patriarch, harried by clerical persecution and the realities of the Interdett.

Goaded into going the whole hog for the election by his drinking buddies at the kazin, who find the whole thing hilarious – an extended cruel joke spearheaded by the particularly vile Ricky (Lee Farrugia) – Karist’s ambitions gain a keener edge when a mysterious benefactor pops into the equation. Tommy (Paul Cilia) is a Lebanese fixer and schemer of sorts, who takes an interest in Karist for reasons known largely to himself alone.

But as the ‘Limestone Cowboy’ show gets on the road, the reputational and psychological repercussions begin to weigh heavily on Karist’s family, made up of his devoted Romanian wife Anya (Irene Christ), his socially-conscious and put-together son John (Davide Tucci) and his young grandson Adam (Matthew Sheridan).

So, it’s a heavily concentrated cocktail of germane themes: the looming threat of social shame on a small island; a ‘football hooligan’ approach to political discourse and dialectic; the tight-knit bonds of Maltese families and the legacy of both post-war political turmoil and its ensuing psychological trauma. So concentrated, in fact, that by themselves these elements would likely have been difficult to animate into the kind of mainstream three-act narrative that the team are clearly going for.

Enter Tommy. A slippery trickster figure who appears to have literally materialised out of nowhere to stir the pot, he is a necessary evil, both for our characters and our film-makers, the latter of which employ him to get a behind-the-scenes conspiracy going that keeps us on our toes and facilitates a redemption arc towards the end. For some viewers, the too-convenient insertion of this schemer into the mix might hamper their suspension of disbelief, but this critic found Cilia’s performance beguiling and fun. In large part because, like any trickster worth their salt, he gets some of the best lines.

Where the seams of a local production with local limitations – budgetary or otherwise -- do show are in the over-stretched ensemble cast, and the natural pressure that comes with having what is a layered multi-generational story presented within these confines. While Davide Tucci is convincing as the beleaguered and self-conscious young father anxious to shut down his own father’s crazy quest, it is in the less obviously ‘shouty’ moments that the ubiquitous actor-model falters. A key scene in which he attempts to get his young son ‘on his side’ in an attempt to salvage Karist from doing any more damage is bereft of a necessary emotional punch, as Tucci fails to hit a mark that goes beyond a studied sulk.

The similarly popular Mark Doneo also fails to make his patriarch character feel as ‘lived in’ as possible, resorting to familiar tics when such a historically specific character would have benefitted from some hardcore workshopping.

But these are relatively minor bumps in a story that otherwise ticks merrily enough along, allowing Mallia to craft a universally relatable film that should have mainstream appeal even beyond our shores. In fact, an early logline for the film is telling in its simplicity: ‘A family grapples with a delusional parent’... which is a pretty accurate distillation of the emotional core of the story.

A core that is held together with gusto by Paul Portelli. A notable stage actor whose wiry and imposing presence has become something of a trademark (in a film that extols the foibles of Malteseness, our protagonist is uncharacteristically tall), Portelli imbues Karist with both pathos and chaotic charm. An unhinged Don Quixote with only devilish Sancho Panzas at his side… a void of compassion otherwise filled by his wife, sensitively portrayed by the veteran German actress Irene Christ.

In many ways, Portelli embodies precisely what is best about Mallia’s film. A clever, lightning-in-a-bottle summation of particular Maltese quirks. It is not a postcard, because postcards are broad-brush and generic. Instead, Limestone Cowboy builds from the specific to the general, finally giving us a cinematic take on the Maltese Islands that is self-contained enough to work on its own merits.

The verdict

Though lacking polish in certain areas and never quite managing to resist the temptation to stuff every frame with ‘local colour’, Limestone Cowboy remains an engaging and effective dramedy that successfully alchemises quirky Maltese mores into a feature of universal appeal.