Director: Grímur Hákonarson Writer: Grímur Hákonarson
Starring: Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Theodór Júlíusson, Charlotte Bøving Film Review by Andrew Moore
Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Rams (Hrútar) is an Icelandic drama directed by Grímur Hákonarson. In a treeless, desolate valley, the scene is thus set for the tale of feuding brothers and sheep farmers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) who live adjacent to each other on the respective farmsteads where they breed sheep from their prized ancestral rams. Other than a sheepdog (and of course the sheep), this at odds duo are the sole occupants of the valley . . . there’s nothing! Oh, and they haven’t exchanged a word with each other for the last 40 years!
The film starts with an expansive shot of the valley showing Gummi slowly walking from the right of the frame towards some sheep, who in turn walk towards him from the left of the frame. Not long after this Gummi opens a gate (getting off his quad bike to do so) whilst transporting his much loved prize ram to the local competition. Here Kiddi simply takes the opportunity and drives through on his quad bike transporting his own prize Ram (leaving Gummi to begrudgingly shut the gate). This subtle war of attrition says a lot about the brother’s relationship. At this annual competition in the nearest settlement those classic ‘Sarah Lund’ Icelandic jumpers are omnipresent, a constant visual reminder to the importance of sheep here. The community exists because the sheep exist! In fact with fierce beards and chunky knitwear, visually the brothers aren’t a million miles away from the sheep! It’s Kiddi’s prize ram that wins the competition (much to the distain of Gummi who comes second) but it’s discovered by Gummi (after leaving in disappointment) that the prize rams have Scrapie, a fatal degenerative sheep disease. This spells disaster for their prize stock and the community. Other communities have already been decimated by this! How the brothers react to this disaster and to each other sets up the premise of the film.
In this film the brother’s way of life feels very much outside the modern world. At no point does the film allude to a wider Europe existing, in fact the vets that arrive for the culling of the infected sheep (coming from a slightly more modern Iceland) are the ‘other world.’ In the evening we see Gummi doing jigsaw puzzles, listening to the radio and at one point when a vet visits we see a calendar for 1978 on the door behind him. In a Christmas scene where he makes his dinner (lamb of course) and sits alone in his house with seasonal music playing on the radio and the meagre decorations you’re given no reason to think that this routine has changed at all in the last forty years. This scene is broken by the rescue of a paralytically drunken Kiddi, but after mechanically putting him in a warm to bath to defrost he carries on with this bucolic Christmas scene. They way Gummi deals with Kiddi is functional (I won’t give away how he gets him to Accident and Emergency during another drunken episode). It transpires that Gummi owns the land but who leased some to Kaddi as part of his mother’s deathbed wish, and who is slightly less erratic than Kaddi (whom their father didn’t want to have the land). The brothers themselves communicate via a note transported by sheep dog (such as when Gummi sends Kiddi an invoice for his broken windows which he shot through upon angrily receiving news of the sheep disease)! Given that they’ve not talked in 40 years how many sheep dogs were given this job, liaising between man and sheep (and man and man)!
Here are their lives now then, two brothers, no women and some diseased sheep. When Gummi shoots a hundred and forty of his sheep you feel for the brother before the sheep, he’s deconstructing his life. When one of the visiting the vets casually asks Gummi if he’ll be giving up sheep farming now, it doesn’t even warrant an answer or consideration from him, there is nothing else he can or will do, you may as well ask him to cut his legs off! Of course, Kiddi eventually finds that Gummi is hiding sheep downstairs, protecting the prized lineage. Gummi’s initial reaction is to grab a gun and protect his sheep from him, not the outside world, but of course it’s the sheep (and protecting them) that finally brings the pair together.
And thus with Rams we are left asking where our reception of this film lies, is there humour and if so how? It’s played straight given all we know about the encapsulated world of the two brothers. There are several, what could be considered ‘funny’ scenes but set against the genuine concerns of the brothers microcosmic world is a spade in the face a concession to filmic humour or a desperate reaction to a desperate situation. Yes, the brother’s life can perhaps be seen as quirky but if the humour was turned up at all then surely the film would descend into farce (which doesn’t seem its purpose). Turn the dial the other way and it’s a bleak, Scand-Bergmanesque study in sheep farming, which doesn’t seem its point either. In fact with less dialogue the film would sit very well next to Michelangelo Frammartino’s 2010 film Le Quattro Volte (which has an even more talented sheepdog starring in it)! In the closing credits there is duly noted thanks to the ‘wonderful people and sheep of the region’ without a hint of pathos.
Why haven’t the brothers been friends for forty years? What else can it involve but sheep! What other dreams and desires do they have? Nothing else is alluded to, there’s no family circle and only fleeting communication with the wider community. It’s just them and their sheep and this drives the viewer to witness an incredibly bleak ending when it’s all threatened. If the ancient lineage ceases to exist then so do Gummi and Kaddi, what other role could they possibly fulfil as characters? One wonders how modern sheep farmers who have faced similar concerns will engage with this film, would they even watch it? Or is it just watched by city dwelling cineastes? The film is encapsulated in a particular world where those concerns are very, very real to its protagonists, and therein lies the film’s authenticity. That the film proves to be some kind of anomaly in terms of its classification we should consider to its advantage, it is what it is without concessions to anything else.
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