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Malta Film Review: Realistic & Relatable

Two people at a bus stop in the SXSW 2024 film Malta

With pristine directing and exceptional performances, Malta delivers an earnest portrayal of challenging family dynamics and the complexities of adulthood.  

Mariana (Estefania Piñeres) works nights at a call center and spends most evenings visiting bars in the town. Her goal is to relocate to Malta and live a harmonious life away from her mother. There appears to be a lot of resentment between the pair, and they often bicker. Her mother wants her to move out, and Mariana can’t wait to leave but wants the departure to be on her own terms. Mariana’s brother, Rigo (Edwin Riveros), hasn’t been seen for days and is in with the wrong crowd. He, too, doesn’t like to be in the presence of his mother due to her judgmental tendencies.

Rigo’s ex-girlfriend is pregnant with his child, though he doesn’t wish to be in his daughter’s life. Mariana’s grandfather is sick and unable to speak. The household bills have been piling up since Rigo moved out, and Mariana’s sister Monica (Angela Rodriguez) has begrudgingly paid his third of the household expenses. It’s pretty apparent that the family isn’t particularly well off, and money, or lack thereof, accompanied by drama, is a recipe for disaster. To make matters worse, they all live under one roof, only adding to the friction.

However, not everything in Mariana’s life is negative. After she starts spending time with Gabriel (Emmanuel Restrepo), who has had eyes on our protagonist for quite some time, the two strike up a sweet bond, and he’s a welcoming escape from her chaotic home life. That said, Mariana’s plans to move abroad are on the horizon, and they have little time left to spend together.

Though the premise of Malta is rather simplistic, within twenty minutes I knew I would enjoy the film. Director Natalia Santa takes time to tell the story and build up each character, which kept me glued to the screen. Early on, we learn that Mariana and her family deal with realistic, everyday struggles many adults face, making the feature extremely relatable. Malta isn’t afraid to showcase that not everyone experiences a life void of bad decisions, complicated relationships with relatives, and failures. Instead, the film acknowledges that life can be messy. We may not always make the right calls, but each misstep allows growth, and life is a learning curve.

A shot of a bus seen from the road, with women sitting inside it, in the SXSW 2024 film Malta
Malta (Perro de Monte / SXSW 2024)

Santa’s filming style allows viewers to experience each character’s feelings, especially Mariana’s. Even when close-up camera shots are absent of dialogue, Piñeres’ body language speaks for itself, and we know exactly what our leading lady is thinking. Lingering shots are used frequently throughout the film’s runtime, only adding to the realness of Mariana’s sorrow, happiness, and conflicts.

Though this is only Santa’s second feature, she masters unraveling Mariana’s intricate family dynamic and gradually builds on the relationship between Mariana and Gabriel. This approach leaves viewers anticipating what will happen between the pair each time they share a scene. You know a director has done their job when you leave the viewing experience feeling like you watched a real-life story unfold before your eyes instead of actors performing a narrative.

Malta wouldn’t be able to reflect such raw emotion between the characters without a talented cast, and each actor does a fantastic job. Piñeres’ nuanced performance brings a realistic and relatable character to life. As a viewer, I not only grew fond of Mariana but also resonated with her on many levels. Mariana’s mother, played by Patricia Tamayo, is one of the film’s standouts, and her scenes alongside Piñeres accurately portray the strife that can exist in mother-and-daughter relationships.

But perhaps the most wholesome character is Gabriel, whose pure intentions add a lot of heart to the film. He is charming and awkward, and Restrepo flawlessly balances both traits. The sentimental dynamic between Mariana and Gabriel wouldn’t have worked if Piñeres and Restrepo didn’t have chemistry. Thankfully, they do! Malta does end things on a somewhat ambiguous note, and there are a few plot points that I wish had been explored further, but these elements didn’t hold enough weight to ruin my viewing experience.

All in all, Malta is a sincere, well-executed, and well-acted feature. The film accurately portrays challenging family dynamics and the complexities of life through compelling and relatable characters, helmed by the talented Santa through pristine camera work. Whether you’re heading to the SXSW Film Festival this year or are looking for a gripping drama to sink your teeth into, Malta should definitely be on your radar.

Malta will be screened at SXSW on March 9-14, 2024. Read our SXSW reviews and our list of films to watch at SXSW 2024!

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