Rams a Hard, Cold Icelandic Gem of a Film

RAMS  (2015)
Directed by Grimus Hákoarrson
Aeroplan Film, 93 minutes, Icelandic with subtitles, R (naked old men)
* * * * *

My father and my aunt held a grudge for 25 years before they abruptly stopped feuding for the simple reason that neither could remember why they were mad at each other. Such foibles are central to this glorious little gem of a film from Iceland.

Sheep herders Gummi (Siguroùr Sigurjόrsson) and his older brother Kiddi (Theodér Jùlísson) live side-by-side in a remote section of Iceland, but the wire fence running between their properties has less to do with ovine management than with the fact they’ve not spoken for 40 years. Both raise an heirloom sheep that is the wooly Rolls Royce of their region, yet are fierce competitors in local fairs where little more is at stake than yearly possession of a forked stick for best ram in show. It doesn’t take long to realize that Gummi and Kiddi are the titular rams of this film. We also infer that the dispute probably has something to do with the fact that their parents entrusted Gummi to maintain the stock because the elder Kiddi is a drunkard.  

Though Gummi is the brooding sensitive brother, each is hard-headed in ways that explain why each is a gray-bearded bachelor. Their gray beards and stocky bodies also alert us that each has become more ovine than human; in fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that they love their animals, especially their respective prized rams. Gummi and Kiddi are perversely content in their spiteful silence, but must confront the twists that fate puts in life’s skein. Shortly after Kiddi’s ram bested Gummi’s by a half point at the local competition, Gummi notices the telltale signs of scrapie in that ram. This is serious business; if scrapie is detected, the only way to eradicate it is to destroy all of the herds in the area, their pens, and hay. Is it scrapie, or Gummi’s revenge? Or is Gummi actually trying to preserve the family flock? Will the brothers pursue a vendetta to the end, or cooperate in the name of a greater goal?

There’s probably not much in this description that makes you to see this film. Let me add that it’s very slow, nearly silent in long stretches, and subtitled. I can hear you mocking: “Oh sure, Rob—I’ll make a mad dash to view a film in Icelandic about cranky sheep herders where very little happens and the old farts appear nude. Woo-hee!” And I’ll tell you that if you miss this one, you are passing on a gorgeous film that is more moving than a mall full of overwrought Hollywood tripe. In structure it’s a black comedy stitched to a drama, with its gags analogous to the offbeat humor of a film such as Fargo. Its drama is either heartwarming or heartbreaking, depending upon how you interpret material that is deliberately open-ended.

Iceland nominated this film for Oscar consideration, but the Academy passed. Although I’d certainly not dispute its choice to bestow top honors on the stunning Ida, I’d put Rams just a notch down from it. Don’t judge this film by its setup; it’s like Nordic furniture: stark, clean, sharp-angled, and enduring. --Rob Weir

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