A story of filial rivalry in a remote valley in Iceland, Grímur Hákonarson’s second narrative feature Rams (Hrútar, 2015) begins as an oddball comedy about sheep farming and grows slowly into a tale of elemental and moving power, deservingly winning the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes. The film focuses, and initially sides with, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), an unmarried solitary sheep farmer, whose affection for his flock is obvious and heartfelt, sniggering aside. Like a long term dog owner, he’s even grown to resemble them with his woolly jumpers and woolly beard. He lives one hundred yards from Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), his elder brother with whom he hasn’t exchanged a word for forty years.
The two glare at each other occasionally, and can’t help but interact, but when they do it is in a brusquely comic way. A stray ram is simply thrust through the offender’s front door, or a note is hastily pencilled to be delivered via sheep dog. The depth of sibling rivalry becomes evident when Gummi takes second place and Kiddi takes first in a ram competition. Neither brother takes it well. Sore loser Gummi storms off, and sore winner Kiddi gets hammered and takes pot shots at his brother’s windows with a shotgun by way of celebration. The victory, however, proves pyrrhic, when Gummi finds the winning ram has actually got symptoms of a dreaded disease called scrapie. The disease is incurable, highly infectious and, if confirmed, will lead to the slaughtering of not only the flock but endangers all the sheep in the valley and the news in fact is not good.
With all the sheep to be slaughtered and the sheep pens thoroughly disinfected, anything wooden or used in the pen has to be burnt, the two brothers react in markedly different ways. The wiser Gummi once the emotional shock is over takes matters in hand and gets it over with, whereas Kiddi rebels hopelessly and descends into full blown suicidal drinking, constantly being found in the snow in a stupor. However, Gummi’s apparent obedience is not total and in his basement he has saved some sheep and his favourite second prize-winning ram. In a way the strategy has all the elements of hopeless farce. Inopportune visits and distracting stratagems suggest it is only a matter of time before Gummi is found out, but meanwhile the community of the valley is falling apart as all farmers are banned from sheep farming for two years, many decide to simply abandon the valley and the already fragile community is on the verge of extinction. Even if sheep farming does survive, there is no guarantee that the scrapie won’t return, and the sheep they will be breeding will no longer be the indigenous rare breeds that won prizes.
When Kiddi discovers Gummi’s secret, finally the brothers will have to come to some kind of compromise to save the way of life they both love. Indeed, way of life isn’t even the right term: without the sheep the valley is truly desolate and lifeless. The snow locks the mountain tops in their grip and darkness encroaches for the long winter. Hákonarson frames his characters with sympathy and a wry wit, but he never mocks them. Nor does he take ordinary life as an excuse for endlessly long shots, keeping his narrative tightly focussed and the film relentlessly entertaining and in its latter third incredibly moving. The absurd comedy of men loving their sheep dissipates as we realise how their animals were not just a livelihood but were a deep connection to their own identity and the land around them, beside which their long cherished enmity will seem insignificant. Rams is a truly remarkable, eccentric work.