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In Iceland, a farmer’s devotion to his flock is challenged when an outbreak of scrapie forces the authorities to euthanize sheep.

Mongrel Media

3 out of 4 stars

Written by
Grimur Hakonarson
Directed by
Grimur Hakonarson
Starring
Sigurour Sigurjonsson, Theodor Juliusson
Country
USA
Language
English

In a remote valley in Iceland, two aging bachelor brothers work neighbouring farms where they both breed prize-winning sheep from historical stock; they have everything in common but have stubbornly refused to speak to each other in 40 years. Apparently, the title of the intriguing Icelandic drama Rams doesn't just refer to the sheep.

The movie's premise is full of wry humour, but director Grimur Hakonarson, who won the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes with the film last year, declines to exploit it. Instead, the film revolves around a bitter tragedy: the deadly and contagious brain disease scrapie has somehow infected one brother's flock and the authorities must now destroy all sheep in the valley.

Against low, bleak mountains beautifully revealed by Hakonarson's camera, veteran Icelandic actors Sigurour Sigurjonsson and Theodor Juliusson handle sheep – and isolation – like they have been doing it all their lives. Sigurjonsson makes the dour, apparently sensible Gummi (from whose point of view the film unfolds) a deeply sympathetic figure whose love for his animals is genuinely touching. The more explosive Kiddi created by Juliusson is an irritant in Gummi's life and the spark that ignites the plot. In a film of scant dialogue, Juliusson has a particularly lovely moment as he steps up to claim first prize in a local contest for rams in which his brother has only placed second, his face as delighted as a child with a toy and his chest puffed out like a pigeon's.

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In other hands, this film would turn into a caper pitting wily locals against bemused authorities, like those wonderfully black comedies Bill Forsyth directed in Scotland in the 1980s, but Hakonarson's roots are in documentary and his approach is too observational to produce ready laughs. Even a scene where Gummi scoops the drunken Kiddi out of a snowbank with a front-end loader and drops his inert body in front of the local hospital is filmed with such restraint you have to think your way to the humour of it.

On the one hand, Hakonarson's style elevates the brothers' love for their animals; a moment where Gummi kisses his prize ram is neither sentimental nor ridiculous and, in Sigurjonsson's deft hands, his grief over the flock's slaughter is heartbreaking. Also, much to the credit of Hakonarson's restraint, the film's darkly ironic and ambiguous ending is startling rather than disappointing. On the other hand, the director's style also makes the film ponderous and occasionally even confusing for viewers given so few clues as to how we are to regard Gummi's particularly delightful solution for saving his sheep.

There's lots of wisdom here, but in the Icelandic barrens, good cheer has sometimes gone missing. Yes, there's a price to pay for being stubborn.

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