Anyone lamenting the underpopulated nature of the subgenre “Droll Dramas Revolving Entirely Around Icelanders’ Relationships To The Animals They Rear” had cause for celebration in May, when “Rams” picked up the top Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, thereby doubling the category by fifty per cent, with last year’s “Of Horses And Men“ being the other entry. But Grimur Harkonason‘s “Rams” pulls back a little on the drollery and mines the drama to deliver a more thoughtful and ultimately more affecting film, albeit one whose gentle-trot pacing makes getting to its rough-hewn heart a more difficult affair: the layers of stubbornness, tradition, and taciturn rivalry must be shorn away like so much shaggy wool.
It unfolds slowly in rural Iceland, in a valley community of sheep farmers, but particularly revolves around Gummi (a terrifically sympathetic Sigurdur Sigurjonsson), whose prized and beloved ram Garpur is the first ovine character we get to know. Gummi lovingly but with a practised and unsubtle hand polishes Garpur’s beautiful horns and checks his muscle and fleece according to some arcane standard. Garpur is being entered in a local competition, which he loses by half a point to the ram owned by Gummi’s neighbor and brother, the belligerent, hard-drinking Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson, who gradually comes into focus as equal MVP with Sigurjonsson), to whom Gummi has not spoken in 40 years. Harkonason has a documentarian’s eye for detail and these fascinatingly alien lives amid wild, unforgiving landscapes yield plenty of moments of simple, anthropological interest: the importance of the thickness of the back muscle on a ram; the oddly intimate way the farmers clasp the animals between their legs to feed or examine them; the ancient, embedded knowledge of how the herd will move, what the sky is threatening, and what winter means around here.
With just a couple of quick examinations of Kiddi’s ram, first motivated by pique at Garpur’s loss, Gummi suspects he has scrapie, a wildly infectious disease that will require the culling of the entire valley’s sheep population and a period of enforced quarantine before new sheep are allowed to be brought in. It will devastate the residents of area, who are wholly reliant on the animals for their livelihoods. But Gummi does his duty and alerts first Kiddi by means of a friendly sheepdog who acts as a Pony Express of sorts, carrying written messages between the two brothers, and the authorities, represented by the local vet. His suspicions are confirmed, and the cull is ordered —leading to probably the saddest scene of sheep slaughter ever filmed: it is made expressly clear that these animals are not just Gummi’s livelihood, but his life, his pride, his tradition (having been bred from ancient familial stock) —they are his soul. Without them, as Kiddi rails at him one night from outside, what will there be through this long winter? Only the two estranged brothers living alone, side by side with no sheep to tend.
The stubborn edifice of silence that is Gummi and Kiddi’s fraternal relationship (and how like lost Marx brothers they sound!), with its handy sheep-related idioms of “butting heads” and “locking horns,” starts to crumble as time goes on. Despite being the whistleblower and apparently the most compliant farmer, Gummi is defying the rules in a much more insidious and dangerous way than Kiddi, who rails and roars and tries, in a comically deadpan long shot, to physically block the vets’ access to his flock. He fails, of course, and nursing a ticking-time-bomb secret of his own, Gummi twice saves Kiddi from freezing to death where he’s fallen down drunk —the second time using a digger as an unceremonious ambulance to deliver his corpulent older brother to the hospital.
All of this action unfolds in crisp and calm mid-toned shots from DP Sturla Brandth Grovlen, proving his remarkable versatility in delivering a style so unlike his last film, the feat of handheld athletic prowess that is the 140-min one-take wonder “Victoria” (review here). And it’s not just in the rugged and forbidding exteriors that the images have a bleak beauty. The interiors, whether of eminently functional barns and sheds or the lonely kitchen of a lifelong bachelor, are shot and dressed with an eye for details so banal they illuminate: a radio on a window sill; the clutter of a desk; an elbow that seems to constantly poke through an eternally torn shirtsleeve.
This is, to use an unavoidable word in the context of Iceland’s artistic, musical and filmic output, quirk. But where “Rams” differentiates itself is that this particular quirk is shot through with melancholy (aided by Atli Ovarsson‘s fine score) and a truly lived-in sense of the reality of these hardscrabble, unglamorous lives, built from the ground up in a welter of tiny details. It’s a gently rewarding approach, but it can also be somewhat numbing before the film’s strands come together in its crescendoing finale. The pacing is so restrained that there are times when “Rams” feels like it has already sailed past its total 93 minute runtime, as though clocks in this remote enclave occasionally run counter-clockwise.
But when it reveals its true colors late on, as less of an examination of a rarefied lifestyle and more of an ancient story of brotherhood broken and remade, the cumulative power of all those observed moments comes through. It’s like a dam has held the film and its characters in unbroken check for so long, only to finally burst, and it’s a surprise how affecting it becomes. If it’s a little hard to see why the simplicity of “Rams” won the Un Certain Regard jury over in a strong year featuring Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s “Cemetery of Splendour” and Corneliu Poromboiu‘s “The Treasure,” among other great titles, it’s a likely bet that the sudden rush of blood through its veins that is its moving and desperate finale was a major factor: after so much modulation and tamped-down eccentricity, we get the catharsis of a sudden overwhelming rush of pure emotion that takes shelter from a raging snowstorm outside, but rivals it in sheer elemental power. [B]