Director: Grímur Hákonarson
Major Players: Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Theodór Júlíusson
Out Of Five: 3.5
As a ingredients for comedy, sheep, scrapie and Iceland don’t appear to have much going for them. Sheep are seen as stupid, scrapie was the disease that jumped species to cause BSE and, apart from it being cold and having a volcano with an unpronounceable name, who knows much about Iceland?
Yet Rams makes you laugh, and the surprises don’t stop there. Don’t expect huge belly laughs or, indeed, anything close to the British sense of humour. This is bleak to the point of dark and, most interestingly of all, deadpan. It isn’t, though, an out-and-out comedy: tragi-comedy is more like it, at times sad, touching, anxious and courageous.
In remote Iceland, brothers Gummi (Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Juliusson) are sheep farmers. They live solitary lives in separate houses on either side of the fence and haven’t spoken to each other for 40 years. When Kiddi’s ram wins the annual sheep competition, Gummi’s comes second and the chasm between them grows wider. Gummi then discovers that his brother’s ram has scrapie and reports it to the authorities, threatening the livelihoods of all the families in the valley. But the two brothers have their own ways of fighting the system.
Anybody with farming connections will identify with the crisis faced by the community in the film – the prospect of losing their livings and homes, the complexities of compensation schemes, the notices warning the outside world of the disease and the trauma of losing livestock. There’s nothing in the least bit funny about this side of the film and it’s portrayed with sympathy and dignity. Despite living miles from each other, the farmers in the valley are bound together by the challenges of working the land and support each other as best they can when times are hard.
Gummi and Kiddi – Kiddi especially – are on the edges of the group. Neither have ever married – no housekeeper employed by Kiddi has ever lasted very long in the job – nor are they especially sociable. Yet there’s a grudging respect for them, because they come from an old farming family and their sheep come from an ancient lineage. It’s no surprise, then, that when the authorities decide all the sheep have to be culled, the two brothers are determined to resist and save the breed. But their tactics are strikingly different. Kiddi gets repeatedly drunk, nearly dying of exposure out in the snow and creating one of the film’s funniest sequences, his brother taking him to hospital stretched out in the tractor’s bucket attachment. Gummi, however, appears to comply, shooting his sheep himself but it soon becomes apparent that he has a secret in his basement. And it’s potentially more dangerous than Kiddi’s drinking.
It’s this secret that brings the brothers back together. Until now their only communication has been via notes delivered by their border collie – a little star turn in its own right – but now they discover they need each other in their fight to preserve the way of life that’s in their blood. Initially reluctant to start talking to each other, the barriers between them are soon replaced by brotherly unity and the climax of the film is genuinely touching.
Director Hakonarson says that Rams is based on real experiences, which accounts for its authentic depiction of farming life. The landscape is starkly beautiful, the lighting natural and the characters completely believable, especially the two intransigent old men. As for the title, it could simply refer to those incredibly valuable animals, or it could refer the bone-headed Gummi and Kiddi. See the film and decide.
Rams is released in cinemas on Friday, 5 February and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 4 February.