So you’re either interested in an Icelandic drama about a pair of fraternal sheep farmers who haven’t spoken in 40 years and must deal with the effects of degeneritive disease scrapie on their respective flocks, or you’re not. Those who take a punt on Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams will be rewarded with a fine film that serves as a touching character study as well as a fascinating glimpse into the travails faced by a rural community. It also sheds light on the bond that sheep farmers form with their herds, which is the kind of thing that will inevitably draw snickering from some quarters but Popcorn Nights is above such idiocy, so that’s one in the eye for ewe. (See also last year’s documentary Addicted To Sheep.) The two brothers in question here are Gummi and Kiddi, played by Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson respectively, and they own patches of land that share a border but were once combined to make one family plot. The brothers fell out over something – it’s never really clear what, but it may have been to do with the way their inheritence was divided, or perhaps as neither have ever married it could have been over a girl – and their stubbornness has resulted in four decades’ worth of silence. When they do need to communicate it involves pointing or passing hand-written messages back-and-forth using by a sheepdog, although Kiddi – the more aggressive of the two who douses his own unhappiness with alcohol – has a penchant for expressing displeasure by getting absolutely plastered and firing a gun at his brother’s bedroom window.
As a result of their fractured relationship both brothers desperately want to win the annual ‘Best Ram’ competition that takes place in a nearby town. In the aftermath of one of these events it’s discovered that some of the sheep have scrapie, necessitating a culling of both men’s flocks and those of many other farmers in the same valley. These events gradually force the two brothers to address their long-simmering hatred, lest the family tradition be lost forever. Hákonarson, who wrote the screenplay, turns a fairly simple premise into an engaging and profoundly moving piece, superbly acted by both leads, that skillfully negotiates the fine line between comedy and tragedy. The link between head-butting rams and head-strong warring brothers is obvious but never overplayed during the film, while their personality differences are not simply manifest through shouting matches, and are instead carefully described through a number of well-observed interactions, both with other humans and with their own animals. Similarly the director doesn’t overplay the symbolic nature of the flock: when the sheep are gone there will be no reason for Gummi and Kiddi to remain living next door to one another, and given their old age it would be difficult for either of them to start afresh and carry on as farmers; the culling of the sheep will surely spell the end of this family, so Gummi’s actions in the film are informed not just through love for his animals but because of what these sheep stand for. Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography is naturally informed by the landscape’s shades of green, brown and blue, which gives way to the white of snow and the black of volcanic rock as winter takes hold; the Icelandic countryside filmed is as spectacular as it is bleak. Natural light is relied upon for the scenes set indoors, and there’s something enjoyable about watching the men rattle around in their homes, which are cluttered with all manner of useful farming tools and objects. With sure-handed direction, a suitably morose soundtrack by Atli Örvarsson, a well-written screenplay and some fine acting, particularly by Sigurjónsson, who has the bigger role, Rams is well worth your time.
Directed by: Grímur Hákonarson.
Written by: Grímur Hákonarson.
Starring: Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Theodór Júlíusson, Charlotte Bøving, Jon Benonysson.
Cinematography: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen.
Editing: Kristján Loðmfjörð.
Music: Atli Örvarsson.
Running Time: 91 minutes.