What would my mind conjure up if someone uttered the word ‘Iceland’? Breathtaking, awe-inspiring as well as intimidating landscapes, lack of communication, loneliness, and repressed emotions. Of course, I have derived these images & the attached feelings from their movies. So, half-hostile and half-inspiring landscapes plus the alienated human beings is what makes up as the ingredients for Icelandic cinema. Director Grimur Hakanorson’s “Rams” (‘Hrutar’, 2015) opens with the blend of these magical ingredients: a calm, beautiful valley (north of Iceland), neatly aligned buildings, serene lambs feeding on the pasture, and a fence dividing the land. The crucial human elements are the two old brothers – Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson -- played the central role in Runar Runarsson's "Volcano") – whom haven’t exchanged any words for the past 40 years. Hakanorson injects a matter-of-fact objectivity and dry comedy into the simpler story of two brothers that “Rams” becomes a strangely beautiful fable and ultimately a profound movie experience. Eventually, “Rams” would be remembered as one of those movies deeply rooted in its distinct environment and culture, which at the same time goes on to generate a wider, universal appeal.
The brother’s farms are situated in a desolate patch of land, known as ‘Bardardalur Valley’. Initially, we see these bearded, taciturn men butting heads in the ‘Best Rams’ contest. Gummi’s ‘Garpur’ loses to Kidd’s ‘Sproti’ by 0.5 differences in points. Gummi storms outside to desperately take a look at the Kiddi’s winning ram. He is shocked to find the symptoms of the most dreaded disease in the valley, known as ‘scrapie’. The disease is highly contagious, deadly and if its presence is confirmed, the whole flock of sheep in the valley will be slaughtered. If it leads to a slaughter, the farmer would have to disinfect their farms and wait for at least two years to re-stock it with new cattles. Gummi and his elder brother Kiddi never married and tend to prefer the companionship of the prized rams than fellow humans. So, the loss would be naturally devastating. Gummi confesses his fear to a sheep-farming friend, which brings the community’s veterinary inspectors to Kiddi’s farm. They take away Kidd’s prized Ram and in turn Kiddi takes a potshot at Gummi’s window with a shotgun.
Without much fuss, director Hakornarson depicts hardscrabble realities of a life that’s rapidly vanishing. Kiddi angrily remarks how the land’s native Ram stocks (Bolstadur stock) will be totally destroyed by the slaughter and subsequently replaced by hormone-injected sheep, imported from Western Fjords. However, Kiddi and Gummu aren’t going to join forces to fight against visible enemies of establishment. Theirs isn’t also the simpler ancient vs modern tradition conflict. They just want to preserve the only love in their life. Look at these men’s emotions, while touching at the rams’ horns or when huddling them. Where would lonely Kiddi and Gummi find such unquestioning givers and receivers of love? Apart from loss of love, the sheep’s inevitable fate would also be a loss of identity. The anticipated melting of brothers’ enmity happens at one point, but those images exude with an astonishing humanity and profundity.
Through simple actions, the director/writer is able to differentiate between Gummi and Kiddi. Kiddi is a hard drinker who rages over everything, while Gummi is a pacifist guy. Gummi’s actions infuse light comedic touch to the narrative. The way he barks to call Kiddi’s dog Somi or the manner he sends an invoice for broken windows, which Kiddi splintered by a gunshot serves as striking staging. In one humorous as well as tender scene, Gummi uses a bulldozer to lift drunken, passed out Kiddi and carries him to a hospital. The way each frames are designed in this scene has an exceptional, arresting quality. Another biggest strength of “Rams” is director Hakonarson’s ability to flawlessly shift the tones. The initial tender, quirky relationship between the brothers and their rams are undercut by an irredeemable tragedy. Then, this tragedy is organically sprinkled with light-hearted touches, and towards the end, the mood swings to top, reaching a touching emotional peak. It might all look perfectly easy, but the balance between the delicacy of human emotions and brutality of nature & fate is attained without a single flaw. I think was a well accomplished storytelling method without ever getting caught into the tedious routine.
If we look closely Hakonarson and his cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen never repeats a shot twice. Even in the simple conversation scene happening inside restaurant or Gummi’s house, different angles are employed. Despite the narrative’s slower pace, this helps to not everything monotonous. Whenever Gummi is plagued by paranoia (that the authorities will take away his sheep), we could see the shots becoming tighter. Since Hakanorson is documentary film-maker, he easily diffuses the sense of realism from the very first frame. The slow gait of Gummi and the calm rural atmosphere in the first scene gives us a feeling of watching the real sheep farmer. And, the actors Sigujonsson and Juliusson (both comes from the theater background) have put in great effort to transform themselves into sheep farmers. In an interview director Hakonarson gave to the site ‘The Moveable Fest’ explains how he gave the actors the script a year before the shooting started and how he prepared them to play the central roles: “Two weeks before shooting, we had a rehearsal period and I divided it into two parts. There was one week of rehearsing the actual scenes with dialogue, and one week spent on location, where I took them to the valley and they stayed with the sheep, learning how to talk to them and touch their muscles, to drive a tractor, and also just to inhale the rural atmosphere.” Such a detailed preparation is what makes every sequence quietly powerful. The musical score by Atli Orvarsson adds more poignancy to the proceedings.
“Rams” aka “Hrutar” (90 minutes) reverberates profound, complex emotions within a simpler narrative framework. Its genuine showcase of humanity and the raw performances even towers over the sublime shots of Icelandic landscapes.