Who would have thought that a movie about sheep would be so compelling? I certainly didn’t expect the new Icelandic film Rams to capture my attention as much as it did but I found it to be incredibly tragic and, at the end of it all, powerfully moving. It really is an accomplishment by director Grímur Hákonarson and his two leads Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson to make a film about sheep farmers in a valley in Iceland one of the best foreign films to screen at Vancouver International Film Festival.
At the head of this film is a story of family estrangement in close proximity and the isolation of our main character because of it. Rams is a dark kind of comedy that takes a sharp turn in the second act and becomes a pretty heartfelt tale of two brothers who need each other more to sustain their future legacy than to want to hold onto their past. Hákonarson unfolds this very human drama through the actions of the main brother Gummi, played with such understated sadness by Sigurjónsson. Through simple reactions, we gauge his emotions of his mostly deadpan face.
Gummi and his older brother Kiddi have not spoken in forty years but live on sheep farms side by side, communicating only by Kiddi’s dogs delivering notes. The legacy of their family’s prized sheep bloodline is shared between the two men, with Kiddi always winning first place in the local competition, Gummi ranking a close second. This all changes after Gummi, fed up with always being a runner up, inspects Kiddi’s award winning ram and finds something shocking that could threaten the entire valley’s sheep industry.
Upon his inspection, Gummi finds that Kiddi’s ram has symptoms of a disease call scrapie, which causes the degradation of the brain and spinal column of the sheep, a sort of “mad cow” disease. Not on speaking terms with his brother, Gummi approaches the local veterinarian and implores him to bring in his Kiddi’s ram for a thorough inspection. This sends Kiddi over the edge and he breaks the forty year silence by taking a shotgun to Gummi’s house.
The results of the testing ends up condemning the valley with disease for two years and the slaughter of all the sheep is mandatory. With the family legacy hanging in the balance, Gummi must make quick decisions, drastic actions and maybe cross some legal lines to preserve what means most to the legacy of the family. Beautifully shot across a rural landscape in Iceland, the very simple story unfolds with a couple surprises here and there, ending with a third act that definitely stuck with me.
Being mostly a documentary filmmaker, Hákonarson’s past may be the best reason why this film plays as real as it does, feeling more just dropped into the middle of these two older and stubborn men’s lives. It only feels movie-like once we get into the beginning of the third act, when all the problems seem to be hitting a dramatic crescendo. This isn’t to say there isn’t emotion, as the audience is just as much apt to let go a couple of manly tears as Gummi does in an emotionally pivotal moment of the film. Many parts of this movie are truly heartbreaking.
That being said, this movie for the casual viewer is a hard sell. Really, how do you make the main plotline of sheep farming an interesting prospect for a large audience to check out? The people that have the patience for a slow moving and, for long stretches, dialogue free scenes will all feel the pay off in a story that can be relatable to lots of people. We all know someone who has siblings that they don’t speak to anymore for one reason or another. Maybe not to the extent of forty years, but that notion of time may hit home.
With so many incredible foreign films in 2015, the best of the year in this category is chock full of greatness and hard to decisively say what is the most deserving of a top prize. The sheer fact that Rams hasn’t been in the running for any of the more mainstream trophies like the Golden Globes or Oscars is sad but what do you take out of that field? Mustang? Son of Saul? Certainly not. The only hope is that these films will get the recognition they so rightly need over time. Either way you see it, for me Rams is damn satisfying. I give it a four and a half out of five.