A deadpan yarn about feuding sheep farmers in the frozen north of Iceland, Grímur Hákonarson’s film is partly a darkly comedic meditation on human resilience and partly a study of the region’s harsh but majestic landscape. The two things, it transpires, are compatible.
Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson play Gummi and Kiddi – estranged brothers who compete with each other for the ‘best ram’ contest, a highlight in the local community. Although their farms are adjacent, they don’t speak: instead Gummi passes notes to Kiddi’s resourceful sheepdog to deliver. Kiddi, meanwhile, takes a shotgun to Gummi’s bedroom window. When an outbreak of the fatal Scrapie disease threatens the livelihoods of both men, the brothers are forced to put aside their decades-old rivalries and work together.
The film moves from the relative lushness of summer to the deep freeze of winter; a bitter, inhospitable time and the perfect moment for tragedy to strike. “This is going to be a hell of a winter,” says Kiddi, when their silence is finally broken. “No sheep. Just the two of us!”
Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at last year’s Cannes festival, Rams pitches its pair of intransigent protagonists against bleak, Arctic landscapes of wide, wintry skies and treeless hills. Hákonarson’s measured pace, meticulous detail and documentary-style atmosphere work well here; the tone and sensibility reflects the chilly environment. Aki Kaurismaki is an obvious reference point, as well as the austere aesthetic of the Romanian new wave.
Hákonarson presents his two antiheroes as men out of time, the last vestiges of a near-obsolete way of life. Sigurjónsson and Júlíusson – both in their sixties – convincingly convey their characters’ hardscrabble lives, their deeply lined and wrinkled faces resembling nothing less than the intricate and impressive wood-carvings of ancient and formidable Norse deities.