Published July 1, 2015
In the lobby at Háskólabíó at present, among posters and standees for upcoming CGI disaster epics and comedy sequels, is a cardboard carnival cut-out with two ovals, for your face and your friend’s face, atop the bodies of the two main characters of the new Icelandic film ‘Rams’. Step right up, folks, to the wild-haired, woolly-bearded, lopapeysa-clad old men nearly indistinguishable from the animals at their sides! Show all your Facebook feed the funny picture of you and your friend posing as feuding sheep farmers from North Iceland!
With its rural setting, proudly prosaic story, droll directorial style, and many, many sheep—invariably to be seen doing sheepish things, like bleating, and ruminating, and humping other sheep—’Rams’ may, when described to the sceptical viewer, seem a direly cute shade of local colour, a quaint bit of backcountry pageantry for the cultural-export market. But writer-director Grímur Hákonarson, making his second feature and working off a baseline of lived-in detail, modulates the film’s tone skilfully, with dry, drawling comedy barely disguising a deep-winter melancholy, and finally melting away in an unabashedly lyrical ending. ‘Rams’ has jumped into Icelandic theatres immediately following its triumph at the Cannes Film Festival, where a jury headed by Isabella Rossellini awarded it top prize in the Un Certain Regard section, an honour previously claimed by global arthouse elite like Ousmane Sembène and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
In the film’s opening scenes, a region’s annual ram competition is decided on the slimmest of margins, with just the thickness of their back muscles separating the winning ram from the runner-up, descended from the same bloodline. The respective rams’ owners are also related, and, if anything, even closer in their brawny spinal fortitude. Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) are brothers; they live on adjoining farms, but haven’t exchanged a word in 40 years. They communicate, when absolutely necessary, by sending letters back and forth in the mouth of a sheepdog—or with a shotgun blast through a window, by way of emphasis.
We’re never told the source of their feud—and indeed, one lesson of the Icelandic literary canon, going back to ‘Njal’s Saga’, and its chronicle of bloody, attritional clan strife, is that feuds can be self-sustaining, powered for decades by nothing but their own perpetual motion of grievance and retribution. The film in its opening scenes echoes this logic, like we’ve dropped in midway through an endless tit-for-tat.
The picture of each brother that Grímur allows to emerge does, however, suggest a backstory that’s been fully thought-out. Gummi waits in front of his microwave for his dinner to ding, and cuts his toenails over the bathtub with a pair of shears. His demeanour is sour, reticent even with his closer friends—indeed, Gummi’s attempts to keep people out of his house is the stuff of deadpan and then increasingly frenzied comedy as the film goes on. Kiddi is more demonstrative, especially when he’s been hitting the hard stuff. He twice passes out blind drunk in a snowdrift, forcing Gummi to care for him in ways that foreshadow the pathos of the ending—and also occasion inspired slapstick sight gags.
The film’s long-fuse rhythms allow Grímur to milk laughs out of his understated cast (human and animal), but can also feel reflective, or even depressive. Widescreen compositions emphasize the sparseness of the human presence in the film’s landscapes, and low angles capture the full weight of the grey skies. Tucked under the highlands, in compositions drained of colour, the brother’s farms are exactly the buildings you’d use for scale when taking your own pictures of remote Icelandic farming country, and trying to capture the desolate majesty of it all.
The film’s interiors also have a similar evocative, unshowy familiarity—check the can of Ora green peas used for a Christmas dinner, or Gummi’s plaid shirt with a rip at the elbow, which, unsuitable for work, has been downgraded to his indoor wardrobe. If the story feels timeless, that’s in large part thanks to the production design, which stays faithful to the unostentatious cosy-functional aesthetic of rural Iceland—the trucks are the only things on-screen that clearly come from this century.
That said, the concerns of the plot are very contemporary. The bull-headed self-reliance of rural Iceland’s “independent people” is one of its culture’s great themes. But the romantic stubbornness of this archetype has only become more complicated, more quixotic, as the Icelandic economy turns its eyes away from the interior and towards the rest of the globe. The brothers of ‘Rams’, so thick-backed in their feuding, are also resistant to change in their lifestyle, holding out as the independent sheep farmers they’ve always been, despite the financial and existential difficulties of maintaining such a lifestyle in a small, spread-out community that loses members to the South every year. Iceland’s rural heritage, and its viability in the present day, has been a subtext of several recent films here, from the earthy burlesque of ‘Of Horses and Men’ to the lonely goth wail of ‘Metalhead’. Here, Grímur makes it very much a subject: the plot forces Gummi and Kiddi to interact when circumstances threaten to wipe out their stock, the last of the line inherited from their father.
The brothers’ connection to their sheep—Gummi talks so lovingly to his prize ram, using endearments you suspect he’s never said to another human—is touching, and the subject of some of the film’s rawest emotion; it’s also so closely intertwined with the story’s interpersonal drama in a way that recalls Bergsveinn Birgisson’s 2010 Nordic Literature Prize-nominated novel ‘Reply to a Letter from Helga’, written in the voice of a man who stayed behind with nothing but his sheep for company. In 1980, Sigurður Sigurjónsson starred in the first production of the Icelandic Film Fund, an adaptation of Indriði Þorsteinsson’s novel ‘Land and Sons’—he played a farmer in North Iceland who sells the family farm and moves to the city. His career comes full circle in ‘Rams’, a story of a man’s two sons sticking it out on the same land. The film’s subjects, nature and blood, are at once the humblest imaginable, and the most implicitly poetic.
‘Rams’ is currently playing every day at 17:30 at Háskólabíó. Check out our interview with the director, Grímur Hákonarsson, here.