Written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, Rams tells the story of sheep-farming brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theódór Júlíusson) who live side by side in a rural Icelandic community but haven’t spoken to each other for 40 years.
Sheep play a central role in the film and Hákonarson makes this clear from the start through dialogue and well-placed visual cues.
In the opening scenes, an annual competition for best ram begins with the recital of a poem in praise of sheep (“the sheep intertwines farmer and work”) and the two brothers, with their shaggy grey beards and lopapeysa (jumpers knitted from the wool of the Icelandic sheep), bear a striking resemblance to their prize-winning rams.
The lopapeysa are almost uniform in the village, symbolising the warmth, sense of identity and communal bond the sheep bring to the Icelandic farmers.
When it’s discovered that local flocks may have to be destroyed to contain a virulent disease, the community is naturally devastated. The brothers, whose sheep are the last of a breed tended by generations of their family, are particularly hard-hit.
The intricate blend of pathos and quirky humour that won the film first place in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival arises from Gummi and Kiddi’s attempts to deal with the situation and with their own troubled relationship.
Throughout the film, breathtaking cinematography magnifies the forbidding beauty of the Nordic landscape in widescreen compositions that create an epic feel and low-angle shots that emphasise the oppressive, cloud-filled skies. But many of the best shots are through windows: Kiddi appearing in the distance with a shotgun, and Gummi seen through a tractor window behind the reflected lace-like snowscape or through a ragged hole in the glass that he’s trying to repair.
Long takes silently speak volumes through eye-movement and breathing. The impact of these touching scenes is enormous thanks to flawless performances from two of Iceland’s most respected actors. Sigurjónsson and Júlíusson’s portrayal of the brothers is so intuitive and natural it’s hard to believe they haven’t been farming sheep all their lives.
Mythic and contemporary, gritty and poetic, amusing and melancholy, Hákonarson’s perfectly balanced film is a quiet delight.
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