Rams Dir. Grímur Hákonarson

[Cohen Media Group ; 2015]

Styles: drama, shepherd’s tale
Others: Kitchen Stories, Summerland

The windswept valleys of Iceland are cold and isolated in Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams, and so too is the relationship between elderly brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson). The bearded pair are estranged shepherds, never uttering a word to each other in the past 40 years despite living on the same farm. Communication is conducted through notes placed in a trained dog’s mouth or, when necessary, a gunshot through the other’s bedroom window. It’s a narrow film, despite the breadth of its landscapes, never straying from a honed focus on men whose lives are defined by two things: their sheep and their mutual alienation.

The resentment here runs deep, though its source is never revealed. It poisons the atmosphere at a livestock contest in which Kiddi is triumphant, his dejected brother limply hunched on a second-place podium. Soon afterwards Gummi discovers his brother’s champion ram infected with scrapie, a debilitating neurological disease that spurs the government to slaughter all the region’s herds. It’s difficult to imagine a more savage punishment fate could deal out to the brothers.

Kiddi and Gummi’s lives are built on their prize-winning Bolstadur stock, and news of the impending cull sends both into misery. Kiddi mires himself in drinking and harassing his brother; Gummi, more measured, finds relief in solitary pleasures. His Christmas roast for one, complete with a shirt and tie, may seem crushingly lonely, but for Gummi this solitude is a fact of life. It’s as much a constant in his existence as his sheep once were.

Rams captures the brother’s bonds with their animals in simple, uncompromising terms. The widescreen shots of the men and their beasts are long and tightly framed, punctuated with loving snippets of dialogue. The sheep serve as outlets for Gummi and Kiddi’s affection: while tending to them is their livelihood, it’s also their singular devotion. These are older, country men, the kind cinema often pairs with a faithful wife or a picture of the deceased on the bedside mantel. But the question of the brothers’ relationships with women is broached only once, and the answer to why they never married is more than obvious. It’s the sheep, damn it.

There isn’t much dialogue to be had here, and little of is it is imbued with great importance. The beauty of Rams is in how it captures the small moments of a remote, committed life. That’s not to say that this is a film that forgets how to entertain — a vein of absurdist comedy runs throughout, punctuating bleak scenes with a stoic charm. When Kiddi shoots through his brother’s bedroom window in retaliation for reporting his prize ram’s case of scrapie, Gummi doesn’t say a word of it to Kiddi or his neighbors. He just drops off a bill for a new windowpane at Kiddi’s house before dragging his mattress downstairs to the basement in anticipation of the next assault. There are sight gags, many both poignant and ridiculous at the same time. The best involves Gummi hauling his brothers drunken body to the emergency room in his tractor’s loader while the haunting, slow strains of an accordion sound.

The exacting way in which Rams captures the day-to-day routine of an Icelandic shepherd’s life may try some audiences. First we watch Gummi a character spoon his lunch onto his plate, then we watch him microwave it, and then we must watch him eat it. These moments are helped by the steadfast, utterly convincing performances of its leads, two of Iceland’s most renowned actors. Kiddi comes across as powerfully distraught, a sweater-clad, lumbering wreck of man; Sigurjónsson’s Gummi, who the camera follows more closely, is restrained and more easily pitiable.

There’s a comforting aspect to this triviality. Hákonarson’s film isn’t so much an exercise in telling a story as it as a documentation of lives in which a narrative unfolds by chance. That this is only the writer-director’s second feature after a career of documentary work will surprise no one. What should is just how deftly Hákonarson carves a universally moving work from the private tragedy of two Icelandic shepherds.

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