Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams, a surprise hit at last year’s Cannes festival is a tale of sheep farming in Iceland, following the fortunes of two aged and warring brothers whose flocks and livelihoods are devastated by the arrival of the dreaded scrapie disease.
Sigurður Sigurjónsson plays Gummi, the younger, quieter and ostensibly saner sibling, while Theódór Júlíusson, plays the more oafish and aggressive – and frequently drunk – Kiddi. The two have not spoken in more than 40 years, due to some unknown bad blood, communicating exclusively through handwritten notes delivered by a sheepdog.
Surreal little flourishes such as this help create the unique atmosphere of the film – it is by turns darkly comic and depressingly bleak. There are several scenes, such as Kiddi being driven to hospital, drunk and comatose in the bucket of Gummi’s tractor, or Gummi’s desperate bath-time scrubbing of his prized ram to try and cleanse any trace of scrapie, that tread a fine line between hilarious and heart-breaking.
Ultimately though, it’s the heartbreak that wins out – watching the two wizened old farmers still clinging on to their ancient feuds and way of life in the face of the modern world is a sad affair. After Gummi slaughters his own sheep, rather than let the sleekly professional, out-of-town veterinarians do it, he calmly washes the blood off his face in the bathroom sink, before pausing, gazing into the mirror, and breaking down in full-chested sobs. It’s a powerful moment, that cuts away any sense that the film is playing this curious and out-of-time lifestyle for laughs. But neither is it overly sentimental – the sparse piano soundtrack and still, stark beauty of the frozen landscapes combine to bring a coolly detached feel to proceedings.
Some will love it, some will find it singularly depressing- but it’s a striking film no matter what. The fine performances from the two leads, beautiful visuals, and affecting portrayal of lives in decline make it an engrossing watch.
As part of the DVD, there is also an interview with Hákonarson, the director, conducted at the BFI in February, and his lauded 2007 short Wrestling, following the lives of two young male wrestlers who fall in love, and must hide their relationship from their conservative society.