The Un Certain Regard Best Film Prize winner at Cannes last year, this is a beautifully shot, slow moving story about a pair of estranged brothers and their sheep in small town rural Iceland. This pair is more obstinate than their animals. Siblings Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) have been living side by side without speaking to each other for 40 years, tending to their respective pedigree ancestral flock. When communication can’t be avoided – which it by and large can be – it is left to Kiddi’s dog Somi to scamper between houses carrying handwritten notes in his jaw. Kiddi is a boozer and brawler, a popular figure at community get-togethers, but it’s through the eyes of his gentle younger brother that the story plays out.
Their world is upended when the valley in which they live comes under threat of a particularly insidious incurable virus, scrapie (BSE), that affects sheep’s brains and spinal cords. The only answer is to cull all the sheep in the district and that will inevitably spell financial ruin for some in the tight-knit community. Both Gummi and Kiddi are heart-broken, but each handle the news differently. The question is will it finally bring them together or tear them apart forever?
Icelandic writer and director Grímur Hákonarson has woven a touching and darkly humorous mythical tale, a loving portrait of culture and family in a place where change doesn’t come easily. Hákonarson’s film is based in large part upon his experiences with rural people and culture in Iceland. Both his parents were raised in the country and he was sent there to live and work most summers until the age of 17. This background gave him a certain sense for the stories, characters and visual language of these parts of Iceland.
One of the hardest things Hákonarson’s father ever had to face in his professional life was making decisions about whether or not certain livestock should be slaughtered in the event of a disease outbreak. As Hákonarson says: “In the north of Iceland, as in other rural parts of the island, sheep farming was a central part of people’s livelihood as well as their culture.” Icelandic sheep were and still are holy to a lot of these people and they represent pride and the old ways. They are deeply rooted to the land and closely connected to the Icelandic spirit.
The country was built on fishing and farming and in Budardalur, where Rams was shot, sheep farming is still the main source of employment. Hákonarson says: “Beyond farming, there is something special about sheep and most farmers I know have a stronger connection to sheep than to other domesticated animals. “Farmers who run a mixed farm – raising cows, sheep, and horses – are usually most interested in the sheep. “The cows might put bread on the table but the farmer’s main “hobby” and passion is usually their sheep.” Clearly the director was interested and intrigued by the relationship between these animals and man.
While the main characters, Gummi and Kiddi, living in isolation with their sheep may largely be a throwback to previous generations it was clearly a mindset worth building a story around. And apparently, conflicts between neighbours are very common in the countryside in Iceland. The director knows of many instances where people living next door to one another had fallen out. Decades later they still hadn’t spoken and some forgot why they were enemies in the first place. Hákonarson says: “Icelanders are stubborn and autonomous people. They want to stand on their own two feet and they distrust everything that comes from the outside. “There’s a streak of independent thinking that sometimes goes beyond all logic.”
I thought Sigurður Sigurjónsson was particular affecting and effective as the younger brother – proud, strong, independent, resourceful and resilient. As I mentioned, the stunning cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grovlen in the snow-laden countryside is a real feature that gives you an idea of the hardships faced. Grímur Hákonarson has woven a quirky and poignant little story in a place where sheep rule the roost and enjoy pride of place.
The film is both respectful and insightful. My only reservation concerned the ending. After building the drama and the tension, the film just suddenly stopped, leaving us to make of it what we will. Some may appreciate that latitude, although I would have preferred a firm direction, wrapping up what happens to the brothers and their diminished flock.
Rated M, Rams scores a 7 to 7½ out of 10.
Director: Grímur Hákonarson
Cast: Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Theodór Júlíusson, Charlotte Bøving
Release Date: 7 April 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television