Director: Grímur Hákonarson
For a remote island country with such a small population, Iceland has sustained a remarkable output of films for several decades. Rams is one of the best received Icelandic features of the last few years, and one that’s been on my radar since it played at the New Zealand International Film Festival in 2015.
Gummi and Kiddi are brothers, living on neighbouring sheep farms in a ruggedly beautiful Icelandic valley. The two men have not spoken to each other in decades due to a falling out more than forty years past regarding their inheritance. In the opening scene, Gummi watches with barely contained jealousy as one of Kiddi’s rams snatches the first prize in the valley’s livestock competition. Soon after, however, disaster hits their small community in the form of a scrapie outbreak. To eradicate the disease, government forces swoop in to put down the entire flocks of every farmer in the valley. The local farmers reluctantly prepare for the long, hard, two year wait before they can safely buy new sheep and restore their livelihoods.
Faced with the loss of his precious flock – the last of their distinguished lineage – Gummi hides a small number of ewes and a single ram in his basement. This gambit is bold, but illegal and very risky, as cleanup crews are still scouring the valley for possible traces of scrapie. After Kiddi discovers what Gummi has done, the two brothers are forced to put aside their differences to protect the last of their family’s sheep.
Rams is for the most part a straightforward drama, but with a comedic bleakness that is characteristically Nordic. The humour is dour and deadpan, mostly deriving from long, sustained shots of moments which are simultaneously somber and silly. Take, for example, the scene where the government cleanup crew disposes of what they believe to be Gummi’s entire dead flock. For a cringe-inducingly long moment, we simply watch Gummi’s blank, awkward expression as a seemingly endless stream of lifeless sheep flop, one by one, out of the back of a truck into a big hole. This sequence, and indeed most of the film, plays out with very sparse dialogue – in contrast to English-language comedies, which can often be quite “talky”. It’s reassuring to see a film with such faith in the power of the cinematic image alone to elicit an emotional response – although it’s intentionally made ambiguous which emotion is appropriate.
The visual style is restrained yet effective. Most scenes are filmed primarily in long shot with very few cuts. Closeups are reserved for the moments of rawest emotion, and they are similarly unflinching. Wide angle lenses give every exterior shot the atmosphere of a western or a desert epic – houses and people are swallowed by the bleakly beautiful landscapes that stretch to infinity.
Rams is many things: a portrait of a community in peril, a pastoral tragicomedy, and most crucially a simple story about the reconciliation of two brothers. Their bitterness and stubborn pride satirise a stereotypically Icelandic mindset, and the director has stated that rivalries like that of Gummi and Kiddi are just as familiar in Iceland’s parliament as they are in its farming communities. It’s hard to say how much of the film’s impact is lost on me, as an outsider, but the film is fascinating regardless. Rams is sometimes disturbing, sometimes absurd, often bleak, but always compelling.