Having the bottom ripped of your world isn’t a pleasant experience for anyone.
But when you’re a sheep farmer out in a remote valley of Iceland, and your world is tending to your herd, all of whom you know by name and look after with commensurate affection, then their loss is beyond devastating as two estranged brothers discover to their great cost in the Grímur Hákonarson directed, Rams (Hrútar).
Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) haven’t spoken for 40 years despite living cheek-by-jowl on neighbouring farms, the product of a feud that is never elucidated but which has caused considerable rancor ever since.
It’s likely partly due to the personalities of the brothers who are a marked study in contrasts.
Gummi, quite possibly more devoted to his flock, who represent a rare breed present nowhere else in Iceland, than any of the other farmers in the valley – this is saying something given the level of love and devotion bestowed upon the sheep that sustain the economy of the remote region, is quietly-spoken, congenial and not prone to rash judgement or action.
He is almost lovable and sweetly goofy, the steady son that inherited the farm in preference to his brother, who remains in the family home after their mother’s deathbed request that Gummi look after his sibling.
Kiddi, on the other hand, is volatile, prone to hitting the bottle to a destructive degree – he is found on two occasions asleep in snow drifts, leading to one very amusing scene where Gummi ferries him to hospital in the scoop of a front end loader – and unwilling to listen to reason.
Unlike Gummi who tends to his flock with almost religious fervour and attention to detail, Kiddi is less careful, failing in one scene to notice that one of his sheep has died; it is up to Gummi to carry the animal in and leave in Kiddi’s sheep with no more than a guttural gesture to show what he’s done.
The two brothers are as far apart as it is possible to be, despite their physical proximity, only communicating via neighbouring farmers or through messages delivered by Kiddi’s affable sheep dog Sommi.
So when ever attentive Gummi notices that Kidd’s prize winning ram has scrapies, a fatal degenerative disease that lays waste to the nervous system of sheep, and reports it to the authorities for testing, it is blamed by an ever prone to fly off the handle Kiddi as a simple case of sour grapes (Gummi’s beloved ram Karpur was the runner-up).
But when the tests come back positive, and the local vet authority headed by Katrin (Charlotte Bøving) decide the only course of action is the slaughtering of all the sheep in the valley, Kiddi’s fury becomes near volcanic and the rift between the two brothers grows ever deeper.
As dependable Gummi resolutely shoots his own sheep – in contravention of the rules that say the vets must dispatch the animals under carefully-controlled conditions – and disinfects his shed, Kiddi refuses to do anything, furious that his world has been turned on its head and he has no means of countering it.
Much of the resulting interactions between the two brothers gives rise to some deadpan comedy, but also some deeply poignant moments when it becomes clear that Gummi only looks after Kiddi after a sense of responsibility rather than familial affection.
In fact, he lavishes more care and love on his sheep than he does on his brother; when a drunken frozen Kiddi is brought to his home on Christmas Day, Gummi warms him up and lets him sleep it off but refuses to interrupt his carefully-prepared festive dinner for one.
To all appearances it’s an unhealable rift and Hákonarson does a finely-nuanced job of bringing the chasm between the two brothers to life in wry and amusing ways while also suggesting that possibly there exists some residue of brotherly affection between the two.
While it’s hard to believe that any love remains between them, when Gummi reveals, with great reluctance and fear a secret that come imperil them both, one which suggests he is more of a rule breaker than he’s willing to let on, you realise that strong bonds remain, at least from Kiddi’s perspective.
Rams deftly and movingly mixes comedy with poignancy, and minimal dialogue, giving us in the process a portrait of two men, who without spouses, children or family, have only their sheep left to give their lives purpose and meaning.
When that is all taken away, both men have to grapple with how they’ll respond to events that have the power to rip the guts out of not just their lives but the community as a whole.
It’s inconclusive ending aside, which is either a brilliant piece of life-goes-on narrative interrupted, or lazy writing depending on your perspective, and which provides for both pessimists and optimists to advance their cases with equal weight, Rams unassumingly but powerfully shows how vulnerable the human condition can be, even in men toughened by life and climactic conditions to expect and withstand the worst.
There is no such thing it reveals as a hardened soul, either when life as you know it has come to an end, or when events are of such a magnitude that you have no choice but to dispense with enmity-laden solitude and band together as a family.
Not that it’s necessarily a happy ever after film but both brothers discover, when their backs are well and truly up against the wall, that family matters far more than sheep, land, livelihood and the myriad other things that have consumed their lives to date.
Quite where it all goes from here is anyone’s guess, but in its brief but perfectly-executed hour and a half Rams stakes a claim for being one of the remarkably moving, wryly funny and unflinchingly honest examinations of family and the human condition to come across our screens in some time.