Iceland (2015) Dir. Grímur Hákonarson
It’s funny when two male friends without any shared DNA proclaim themselves to be “as close as brothers”, when sometimes even that blood bond can be strained or broken. But when you think about what could bring two estranged siblings together again, sheep are likely to be a distant choice.
In a remote Icelandic valley lies a small farming village where two sheep herding brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) have not spoken to each other in 40 years over an undisclosed matter concerning their ancestral farming heritage. The only way they communicate is via hand written notes delivered by Kiddi’s loyal sheepdog.
After Kiddi wins the annual competition with his prize ram responsible for impregnating the local ewes, Gummi discovers the ram has scrapie, an infectious disease fatal to livestock. All sheep are ordered to be killed ahead of a two year wait before new sheep can brought into the valley. Gummi luckily has a few sheep and a ram that are not infected, which, with Kiddi’s help, has to hide them from the biohazard team.
Reading the above synopsis will either make Rams sound tragically dull or more exciting than it should be when in fact it is neither. It is a rather gentle tale full of pathos, dark humour and a rural simplicity that makes the bittersweet emotional impact all the more heart warming through its unfiltered human drama.
The remote Icelandic setting is picturesque and a photographer’s dream with its natural vistas and expansive panoramas yet is hardly inviting. In terms of immersing the audience into the location this is very much a film where texture is the key – the dull autumnal sky, the muddy grounds of the farms, the claustrophobia of the sheep pens and the chilling heavy winter snow in the second half create a very tangible sensation.
For the brothers, they don’t speak much – especially to each other – but their body language tells us everything we need to know about them. Gummi is the quiet, level headed, thoughtful one of the two and clearly the more troubled about the estrangement; Kiddi is loud boisterous and reacts with aggression to a problem.
When the scrapie is discovered, Kiddi shoots a hole through his brother’s window, calls him a liar and accuses him of jealousy for not winning the sheep competition. Once it is established the scrapie is with his ram and his sheep are put down, Gummi hits the bottle and refuses to clean out his barn, holding up the cleansing and livestock restocking process.
One night Kiddi passes out in the snow after he learns of Gummi’s hidden livestock, so in the film’s funniest scene, Gummi scoops him up in a digger scoop, carries him to the hospital and dumps him outside! While Kiddi is away Gummi cleans out his brother’s shed and this act of generosity is the first sign of Kiddi’s hostility towards Gummi beginning to thaw, ironically as the winter weather worsens.
An air of melancholy is pervasive throughout the film, largely through the dour climate but through it stillness and depictions of enforced loneliness. Forty years is a long time to hold a grudge and while details are not explicit the reason appears to be hurt pride and stubbornness on Kiddi’s part. Yet he is full of live and vigour, his laugh hearty and loud; Gummi often keeps his head bowed, his eyes forlorn, his posture resigned.
There is something rather sweet in the fact that they can rely on Kiddi’s sheepdog to relay message, the cheerful dog showing neither favouritism towards his owner nor any hostility towards his Gummi. The other villagers seem aware of the issue yet never pry or seek to fix it, nor do they take sides, although Kiddi’s behaviour does sour a few relationships.
Amidst this unfortunate sibling drama is the actual sheep farming which isn’t given much prominence, which is a shame as there is presumably much to learn, but perhaps writer-director Grímur Hákonarson wanted to avoid filling his run time with the quotidian routines of the job and perhaps alienate some of his audience.
That said, what is nice to see in the few moments that are shown, is the commitment of the actors in portraying the farmers, clearly having been schooled in the correct way to perform the tasks. This gives the film a completely natural and credible feel to compliment the bucolic surroundings and the unfussy aesthetic of the country folk, with their thick woolly jumpers and even thicker beards.
Hákonarson has chosen an interesting world in which to tell his story of feuding siblings but he is riffing on the notion that some people feel closer to animals than other human beings, with sheep being the farmers’ favourite according to Hákonarson himself. The fact neither brother has married or sired children yet is devastated at the loss of their livestock reflects this, the loss of business and livelihood seemingly almost secondary.
Also flying in the face of convention is having the brothers be middle-aged and not the usual photogenic 30-somethings cast with the intent to sell cinema tickets. Veterans Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson both posses the requisite world weariness that makes their characters so convincing as jaded brothers, whilst able to convey so much with the subtlest of gestures.
Credit to the sheepdog and the sheep themselves is also required. This may sound flippant or spurious but really, they are as much a part of the experience as the human cast, and could have easily run amok on set. In fact, they probably could have done, but on screen their contributions are natural and genuine – i.e. no CGI!!
Rams will be too slow or uninteresting for mainstream tastes but for cineastes, it is a rewarding example of telling a story and touching our emotions through the most simplest and straightforward of means. It’s minimalist in presentation but rich in substance.