Film review - Rams

(Hrútar, 2015), Grimur Hakonarson’s award-winning tragicomedy (disappointingly not on this year’s foreign-language Oscar list) is an affecting feature about sheep which also speaks reams about the human condition.  Hakonarson focuses on two estranged brothers who share a passion for sheep farming. Set in a remote part of Iceland, Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) own adjacent land but have not spoken to each other in decades. They keep to themselves and avoid any form of verbal contact with one another. Wandering ewes are wordlessly returned if they stray onto each other’s land. When forced to communicate, Gummi’s sheepdog is employed to convey their hastily scribbled messages. Women are noticeably absent from their farms and, over time, the men have grown as shaggy and unkempt as their sheep.

Every year there is fierce competition among the farming community to win the coveted prize for best bred ram. There is bitter disappointment when one brother’s pride and joy beats the other’s ram by half a point - both are from the same ancient lineage. Hakonarson is quick to exploit the comic elements of the brother’s rivalry: Gummi and Kiddi are instantly recognisable as siblings, sharing the same taste in jumpers and bushy beards. They are both stupidly proud of their rams, lovingly tending and grooming them, and similarly stubborn in the face of adversity.

Things come to a head when Gummi discovers that Kiddi’s herd has scrapie (a deadly and highly infectious disease). Attempting to contain the outbreak, the local vets immediately order the farmers in the valley to slaughter their livestock, burn the contaminated fodder, disinfect the sheds, and leave the land to rest for two years. The news is devastating for all concerned, the compensation inadequate, and many in the community realise they will have to abandon their traditional livelihoods. Kiddi takes to the bottle, his resentment against his mildly-mannered brother escalates, and threatens to end in bloodshed. In one scene Kiddi is so drunk that he falls unconscious in the snow outside Gummi’s farmhouse. Gummi picks up his brother in the front loader of his tractor and transports him, in this undignified manner, to the nearest hospital. Only when Kiddi discovers that Gummi has surrendered to his own weakness is there the possibility of a truce between them.

Like Benedikt Erlingsson’s acclaimed Of Horses and Men (2013), the Icelandic landscape provides a dramatic backdrop to Rams, and the opportunity for stunning tableaux beautifully shot by Sturla Brandth Grøvle, while the harsh, changeable weather serves as a formidable foe for both brothers and sheep. Hakonarson’s script offers an interesting take on the old adage that blood is thicker than water and his denouement is genuinely unexpected. Although shot through with humour, Rams is undeniably bleak. Don’t let that put you off. It’s captivating and one of the freshest films you will see all year.

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