Friday, January 29, 2016

'Rams' (2015) directed by Grímur Hákonarson

Rams is an Icelandic film about a remote community of sheep farmers. That’s maybe the most arthouse sounding summary possible, and you'd be forgiven for expecting a difficult film that will be seen by few and appreciated by less. Despite this decidedly undynamic premise, Rams quickly proves its worth.

The core of the film is the fractured relationship between two elderly brothers: Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson). The two share an isolated farm and haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years. They fester resentment; on a good day they’ll blithely ignore the other’s presence, on a bad day they're blasting each other's windows out with shotguns.

Despite this enmity, the men are bound together by the land they work and the sheep they tend to. The opening scenes are taken up with a 'Best Ram' competition, each brother lashing their best candidate to the back of a quad-bike and setting off for what passes for civilisation in this wind-blasted desolation. Despite both rams being of the same stock, Kiddi’s wins – leaving Gummi disconsolate and miserable. He drunkenly breaks into Kiddi’s pen at night, determined to examine the winning ram, only to discover what he thinks are the tell-tale signs of Scrapie.

This fatal degenerative disease can only be eradicated by slaughtering every sheep in the valley. The loss of their livelihood spells disaster for the community – and it’s in these troubled times that the conflict between the two brothers comes to a head.

If your idea of a good time is watching bearded men in woolly jumpers miserably gazing at featureless scrubland, Rams is definitely the film for you. Director Grímur Hákonarson makes the most of the epic scenery, peppering the film with impressive wide shots of the glacial valley these men call home. The events of the film encompass about half a year, so we get to see overcast summer progress towards a gloomy freeze, climaxing with an impressively terrifying snowstorm.

Isolated at the centre of this nothingness lie the two men’s homes. Both are triumphs of set design, conveying grubby bachelor utilitarianism, ancient wallpaper and faded knick-knacks gazing on as a man fiercely scrubs a sheep in his bathroom. Tiny details abound – my favourite the uncommented on calendar on the wall circa 1978.

Similar care shines through in Sigurjónsson and Júlíusson’s naturalistic performances. From the moment they first casually yank a sheep about by its horns, or roughly peel up an ewe’s lips to examine its gums, they’re completely believable as men who have spent their entire lives around sheep. Given their isolation and hatred of one another, long stretches of the film are spent observing their silent reactions. With layers of thermals and big bushy beards, the performance becomes centred on their eyes as they silently and mournfully processing the world around them.

As events proceed we learn why they continue to live in each other’s back yard despite their loathing of one another. The bloodline of their flock comes to symbolise the indefinable qualities that bind families together in difficult times: connecting them to their ancestors, their land and each other. The film concludes on an emotionally complete yet disturbingly ambiguous note: though we can never know these men’s fate, we understand them to a remarkably complete degree.

Rams is an impressive achievement, making firmly unglamorous subject matter rather compelling. That said, its stately pace won’t be for everyone – even with a scanty 90 minute run time the film takes its sweet time getting anywhere. The world of Icelandic sheep farming proves to be surprisingly compelling, but Hákonarson seems to be on sadistic mission to test just how much farming minutia we can handle.

The biggest obstacle is probably convincing yourself that you’re going to settle down to watch “the Icelandic sheep farming movie”. Get past that hurdle and you’re in for an intelligent and well turned-out hour and a half of cinema. Rams isn’t the best film I’ve seen about sheep-farming (that honour remains with Shaun the Sheep), but nonetheless, it’s a tale that lodges indelibly in the mind. 

An understated yet rewarding experience.


Rams is on limited release and on demand from 5th February.

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