Tragicomedy| 92 Minutes | 2015 | Iceland
* * * * *
Ageing, unmarried, and unkempt, brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) work side by side as sheep farmers in a cold and desolate valley in Iceland’s northeast. Each the master of their own flock, they have not spoken for forty years owing to a dispute over their father’s inheritance: considering Gummi the more conscientious worker, their father left him the whole of the land, half of which Gummi allows Kiddi as the result of a promise made shortly before their mother’s death. Whenever a message simply must be conveyed, the dog is sent between buildings with bits of paper folded in its mouth.
Soon after Gummi’s best ram finishes second to Kiddi’s at an annual local breeding contest, Kiddi’s flock is diagnosed with scrapie, a degenerative disease that affects the nervous system of sheep. Infectious and transmissible, it means that all of the sheep in the valley must be destroyed, their sheds dismantled, and their hay burned. The afflicted farmers will receive compensation, and must reach a difficult decision over whether to find new careers, or wait and start afresh with new flocks in a couple of years. While the devastating loss of their sheep almost sees Gummi and Kiddi come to blows, as the environment agency stalks the valley for the last remnants of their cherished stock they finally manage to find some common resolve.
Director Grímur Hákonarson’s second feature film, and the winner of the Un Certain Regard section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Rams is by turns dryly comic, searingly tragic, and encroachingly tender. The wall built up between Gummi and Kiddi appears as well-hewn as the stack of stones upon which Gummi sits, as fixed as the lulls and caps of the landscape, the two men more obstinate than a ram who pushes his hooves against the ceramic in a zealous effort to avoid being given a bath. Yet out here, where man and nature curiously combine and humour always lurks, such walls can be traversed by the most curious of courses. The trauma that comes with the revelation that scrapie has infected the valley is tempered because it seems somehow unreal, merely wished into existence, as though Gummi has twisted his face in the bitter wind and the expression has stuck.
Hákonarson and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen capture all of this with patience, their sober camera sometimes still as it takes in the wide expanse of Icelandic wilderness, at other times moving slowly through barns and over rooftops, lingering over the elegant mise-en-scène of interiors including Gummi’s kitchen, with its small window and lurid green wall-tiling. Big names in Icelandic cinema and television – Gunnar Jónsson, who recently starred in Virgin Mountain, and Jörundur Ragnarsson, who plays Daniel in the ‘Vaktin’ series and its film sequel Mr. Bjarnfreðarson – lend their support in quiet character roles, portraying Gummi and Kiddi’s fellow farmers. The final passage of Rams is a crescendo, one of the most visceral experiences in all of cinema, two old men naked yet cocooned by the snow.