A humanistic Icelandic tragi-comedy, Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams sees two estranged brothers forced to unite to save their prized rams.
Blood Brothersby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Who would have thought that a story about sheep farming in Iceland could be so gripping and so moving? Rams is an elemental story of forgiveness and redemption, played out with dry humour in bleak, cold, almost primeval landscapes. Two sheep-farming brothers, as woolly and hirsute as their prized rams with their Sarah Lund sweaters and unkempt beards, live in neighbouring properties in a remote Icelandic community but haven’t spoken to each other for forty years. They communicate – rarely – by sheepdog. Summoned by whistle, it can deliver a message from one house to the other. Each has a ram from the same prize-winning bloodline that has been in their family for generations. The brothers not only lock horns with each other because of an ancient falling out, but are also bitter rivals at the local prize ram competition.
The story is told through the eyes of kindly Gummi. Suspicious that his older brother Kiddi’s ram beat his into second place at the show, he inspects it and suspects it has scrapie – the deadly ovine virus. When this is confirmed by the Danish vet, under the newly introduced and greatly resented EU regulations, all the flocks in the area have to be slaughtered, a major disaster.
There is little dialogue, except when officious outsiders descend on the brothers. We see the slow, deliberate domestic routine of Gummi’s solitary life in a house that hasn’t changed for years – cooking for one, cutting his toenails with shears, washing his prize ram in the bath. He can’t bear for a stranger to slaughter his beloved flock, so before the authorities arrive, he does so himself. It tears him apart to kill 147 of them – but in a rebellious stand against authority, he hides his prize ram Gurpur in the basement.
Winter comes. Kibbi’s flock is to be exterminated next. He is an unpredictable alcoholic, also living alone, and twice has to be reluctantly saved by Gummi from hypothermia, after passing out drunkenly in the snow. Kibbi’s way of rebelling up to now has been by fending off the vet with a shotgun. But when Gummi’s hidden ram is discovered and is in danger of being destroyed, this brings the estranged brothers together in some instinctive way for the first time in forty years. Shared genealogy – of both their rams and themselves – is stronger than any feud. It unites them in a plan to save Kiddi’s flock and the last ram of their family’s bloodline. The only way is to drive the flock up into the mountains where the vet can’t find them. But the higher they go, the worse the blizzard gets and the more they have to rely on each other to survive – in a scene that mirrors the earlier snow scenes between the two.
By giving universal resonance to what could have seemed the black comedy of a ridiculous rivalry, director and screenwriter Grímur Hákonarson has crafted an unmissable tragic and noble fable that celebrates humanity. Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson, both very well-known Icelandic actors, are perfectly judged and selfless in their portrayals of the two elderly brothers.
Rams is released on 5th February 2016 in the UK