Rams, Iceland’s Oscar submission which enjoyed its East Coast Premiere at the 2015 Hamptons International Film Festival, is a unique film. It won the Un Certain Regard Award in Cannes and the Best Narrative Feature for HIFF 2015.
In Rams, the director/screenwriter Grimur Hákonarson explores the devastating results of sibling rivalry and expands the issues a brotherly conflict creates to ask vital questions for all of us today, lifting the story to a mythic level. With expert performances by well cast actors, and using thoughtful cinematic elements, the filmmaker has selected the unique scenes of Iceland’s frozen landscapes and sparse countryside to provide the phenomenal backdrop which sustains a charged, memorable narrative.
Set in a bucolic, isolated sheep farming community, the film opens with a contest for the finest ram in the area’s sheep husbandry community. Participating are two cantankerous and feisty older brothers, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), who have not spoken to each other for forty years and who only communicate via letters carried back and forth by sheepdog, Somi. Gummi and Kiddi are large, bearded men who are physically representative of the magnificent rams they have entered in the contest.
Unmarried, Gummi and Kiddi, who live on the same compound but in different houses, raise a historic breed of sheep and rams, and are the only ones to do so. The tradition of raising these sheep is generational and the sheep are prime examples of the best of the breeds. It is the reason why the rivalry between each of their ram entries is very keen and the filmmaker clarifies that the fierce competitiveness between the brothers, inadvertently stoked by the community with such events as this, has gone on for decades. When Kiddi’s entry wins the competition by a fraction of a point higher, and Gummi appears crestfallen, the conflicts between the two escalate.
After the festivities, Gummi takes his ram home, puts him in a bath tube and washes him down. The filmmaker leads us to think that his action is connected with the fact that his sheep lost and he will be grooming him more meticulously for later contests. However, the director is subtly instructing us not only about how intricate and networked life in this farming community is, he is foreshadowing the depth of Gummi’s character, his prescience and his cleverness. With spare cinematography and acute, precise, visual story telling, Hákonarson intimates the conflict with this scene and reveals the complexity of the problem to our inexperienced eyes.
In the next segment, Gummi informs the community’s vet, that he believes that Kiddi’s ram has Scrapie, the sheep equivalent of Mad Cow Disease. After officials contact him for the first time in decades, Kiddi breaks his silence and confronts his brother screaming and threatening revenge for being a sheep “murderer.” The fierce divide between them, which we have yet to understand, now has erupted into verbal violence. Kiddi is convinced Gummi is avenging himself because Kiddi’s sheep won the contest. Even a community member voices the thought that he is envious and doubts the ram has Scrapie which has never been witnessed in the community.
Nevertheless, Kiddi’s sheep is hauled away despite his vociferous condemnation to be tested. Through the filmmaker’s patient unraveling of events, we come to understand that Gummi knows the gravity of the situation. His herd is in close proximity to Kiddi’s. The threat of the disease will fall on his sheep as well. Would he mistakenly inflame the sheep farmers on a bogus charge or has he seen something suspicious? Though it appears he has risked his herd and made trouble for all the farmers in the area, it is the right thing to do. His action is a noble and adult one. At great sacrifice to himself and his brother, he is protecting the farmers whose different breeds of sheep are still healthy. And he is protecting the individuals who would be eating the tainted meat from the highly contagious disease that results in a wasting death.
When the tests come back positive, the sheep herders’ peaceful way of life is flipped to chaos. They are forced to confront the devastation that their efforts have been in vain. They must destroy their herds, burn the wooden stalls in their barns, clean and disinfect all the areas the sheep have touched, even the soil. Before they purchase another herd, they must wait two years so the virulent plague is assuredly wiped out. Even though the government will pay the farmers for part of their loss, it is never enough. A young couple just starting out discusses the situation with Gummi. The couple’s farm has been entailed and they will not be able to pay off their debts. After they destroy their sheep and finish the clean up process, they are abandoning husbandry. In these scenes the director underscores the plight of the small farmer and the impossibility of surviving within an economic system predicated upon usury which drains the lifeblood of its hardest working citizens which have no recourse but to succumb and have their farms repossessed by banks.
Gummi is emotionally devastated and weeps before he lovingly takes the lives of the sheep which have sustained him and his family for generations. He has acted contrary to protocol, but when officials question why he has killed his sheep before they arrived, his poignant response about taking responsibility for the destruction of his flock is accepted as the officials look over and record the carcasses in the barn. Gummi’s sheep are bulldozed and buried in a ditch and he is instructed to clean and disinfect the area which he does.
In juxtaposition, Kiddi is stubborn and resistant; he refuses to kill his sheep and remove all traces of the plague. Using force, officials remove and kill his herd and he, like all the farmers in the area must watch as his sheep and the wealth they represent are wiped out in an hour. For Kiddi and Gummi it is especially difficult; their historic breed of sheep, the last of their kind are now extinct. As representatives of their sheep and their family generations, the filmmaker suggests that this extinction is also happening to Gummi and Kiddi who have no alternative but to wait two years or give up, sell the farmland and move to the city, like the young couple. In casting the two actors and outfitting them as he does, we understand that these burly, grey-haired men are the archetype of the sheep/rams and vice-versa. What is occurring is monumental. Their extinction and the obliteration of their historic generations of bucolic small farms and artful way of life is inevitable, unless there is an intervention.
Kiddi cannot forgive Gummi for thrusting this destitution upon them. He fuels his rage against his brother with alcoholic binges. One night Kiddi explodes with anger and bullets, shotgunning Gummi’s house, nearly killing him. Previously, he threatened his brother that without the sheep it would be a bleak existence between them, a reflection of the cold, harsh winters in Iceland. Kiddi’s prediction is a dark irony; their alienation has been going on for decades; the director keeps us engaged by not revealing how they originally became estranged until a crucial point in the action. The irony is not lost that the brothers have begun to speak as a result of the crisis and looming event of extinction. But the communication is one way: Kiddi hurls epithets and bullets at his brother while Gummi is silent.
The more Kiddi rages, the more he drinks and gets drunk. One night he passes out and nearly freezes to death in the snow, but for a neighbor finding him and bringing him to Gummi who cares for him with quiet patience. We wonder how Gummi is able to turn the other cheek, not answer Kiddi back and protect Kiddi from himself. The symbolism is superb; to warm up Kiddi, Gummi and the neighbor place the drunken Kiddi in the same tub where Gummi previously washed the ram. The connection between the ram and Kiddi is clear; the connection between the scrapie being located in Kiddi’s ram speaks to this brother’s lack of attention to detail needed to be an excellent, responsible farmer. The filmmaker has provided all the clues to their characterizations with vibrant, cogent writing. And as in life which is never mapped out for us beforehand, the filmmaker provides the clues, but in every frame, every event there is something astonishing and gives rise to deeper meaning.
We are riveted by the story. As we attempt to figure out the brothers’ relationship the director engages our interest as he highlights Gummi’s fine ability to “be his brother’s keeper,” though he remains a man of “few words.” Indeed, Gummi has a secret which has given him this power to be adult, caring and creative. The director reveals the secret slowly and subtly and with irony and humor. Gummi has made an unusual provision to preserve their way of life as herders of these beautiful, powerful sheep. But if Kiddi discovers the secret and speaks about it with malice against his brother, then all is lost.
The director leads us into a quagmire and increases suspense as Kiddi spies on Gummi, attempting to divine what his brother is doing. If he makes the discovery, will Kiddi, the brother most filled with wrath and stubbornness, forgive Gummi? Will he maintain his silence to protect himself and his brother? Or will self-indulgent hatred blot out the family history and generational birthright? The director has positioned these characters on a precipice and the result may go a number of different ways. How Grimur Hákonarson spins the story after Kiddi uncovers Gummi’s secret is the turning point of this dazzling and small but mighty film. The arc moves into uncertain territory; the events are thrilling and unpredictable. The conclusion is poignant and there, Hákonarson’s metaphysical themes resonate.
Hákonarson is that rare director who trusts that his audience will read his fabulous signs to interpret the grander scale of the issues which suggest questions for us today: How does one balance the greatest blessings and wisdom of the past with the trenchant concerns of the present? To what extent must we be our “brothers’ keeper” in a shrinking global culture which isolates though it is paradoxically interconnected? If something affects one, it can have an impact on all; can we remain responsible and adult in our own sphere of influence? In Hákonarson’s conclusion Gummi and Kiddi must confront the cold, darkness, and storm that threatens both their lives. They have each other and perhaps can rise above. It is a lesson we need to be reminded of.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1614282277]