This Icelandic drama doesn't shy away from bleak circumstances, yet in dark, dour moments, hope and humour springs.
Rams (Hrútar) opens with the sight of a sheep farm set against an Icelandic valley landscape, a portrait of isolation and melancholy seemingly looming. A man, Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson), tends to his flock with the care of someone seeing to his loved ones, while the neighbouring house of his estranged brother, Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson), casts its shadow over the scene. Herd and hearth will remain recurrent concerns for the duo, as will their icy, unforgiving environment. And yet, writer/director Grímur Hákonarson (Summerland) slowly fills his film with warmth, the element ostensibly missing from his desolate setting and duelling sibling protagonists.
The extent of the family's 40-year fissure becomes apparent at a local contest to judge the region's best ram, with Gummi's joy at earning second place fading when Kiddi is anointed as the winner. As celebrations take place, Gummi inspects the victorious beast in a fit of envy, unwittingly spying signs of the incurable, highly contagious disease scrapie. His suspicions spark intervention from the veterinary powers that be, leading to the decision to destroy all the sheep in the area. The impact upon the inhabitants of the valley will be considerable, as will the consequences for the two unmarried men with no other interests; however, even with their feud still raging, neither is unwilling to meekly forgo the ancestral stock so tied to their lives and livelihoods.
Rams doesn't shy away from bleak circumstances and broken relationships, yet in dark, dour moments, hope and humour springs. Adding his second fictional feature to a resume also littered with documentaries, Hákonarson crafts an attentively written and intelligently filmed effort that not only observes the survivalist spirit that burns inside people and a population traversing hardship, but understands it. Getting to the heart of a bond between brothers that can withstand four decades without speaking, his contemplation of identity and endurance digs to the core of the rural tradition so engrained in his Scandinavian nation. It is hardly surprising that the former is clearly tied to the latter, or that their combination is as touching as it is tragic.
So creeps forward the quiet, patient offering, the filmmaker's documentarian eye apparent, and his witnessing of tender moments unravelling in tandem with his wry sense of amusement. Never undermining the gravity of the scenario, the feature flits between the sorrow of losing woolly friends and the silliness of trying to avoid the authorities, subsequently proving thoughtful as well as comic. Indeed, in a feature so open to embracing the bad with the good in its narrative, a pattern of duality and defying expectations emerges. Rams presents a script concerned with odd couple siblings, a movie that combines delicate drama with absurdist hilarity, and images that cycle between vast outdoor expanses and closed-in interiors.
Accordingly, fine-tuned affection for opposing factions emanates in every earnest frame, directed towards eccentric folks, families struggling with economic uncertainty, and the country's way of living. Fondness also shows in the striking visuals by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Victoria), who shoots the forbidding environment and the flocks of doomed cattle with the same naturalistic intimacy he affords the wizened, weathered faces of the feature's primary pair. Of course, it is that twosome that both fares and serves the film best, in attuned performances that enliven insular character types and unhurriedly subvert them. In a movie filled with forces bucking against and braying at each other – in the manner of the titular creatures, as is always apparent – they're the embodiment of film's empathetic centre; even when they're bumping into and bristling at each other, they're still coming together.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Director: Grímur Hákonarson
Iceland, 2015, 93 mins
Scandinavian Film Festival
Sydney: 8 – 26 July
Melbourne: 9 – 26 July
Canberra: 14 – 26 July
Brisbane: 16 – 26 July
Byron Bay: 17 – 23 July
Adelaide: 22 – 29 July
Perth: 23 – 29 July
Hobart: 23 – 29 July
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level