There isn’t a lot of money in Iceland to finance the making of movies. No big costume dramas, no casts of thousands, no endless special effects because they all cost a lot of money. That means Icelandic movies are inclined to be dramas about the daily lives of people in Iceland. In spite of the financial limitations, Icelandic movies have regularly won prizes in Europe but they seldom make much money because the audience is limited.
Rams, by Grímur Hákonarson, will break this pattern. It is set in Iceland and it is about the daily life of Icelandic people. The main characters are two elderly brothers, Kiddi and Gummi, living in an isolated valley on adjacent sheep farms. Old animosities have meant the brothers haven´t spoken for forty years. They are the quintessential Icelandic sheep farmer-bachelors: independent, argumentative, difficult to get along with, and proud. Anyone who knows his Icelandic literature, on seeing the brothers as the movie begins, can’t help but think of Bjartur of Summerhouses in Independent People. And Grímur said in his comments on the night the movie was shown at the Victoria Film Festival that he had read Halldor Laxness´s Independent People five times so it is not surprising when similarities to Bjartur appear.
The film opens with one of the brothers in a field with farm buildings and houses in the distance. The opening is admirable for its use of imagery rather than dialogue to establish the basic elements of the narrative. It places the story in an isolated valley with more sheep than people. The farmer is walking toward the sheep. He stops to tighten the fence between the farms. He also stops to rub the head of a ram. In this largely silent landscape, the major elements of the story, the farmer, the sheep, the separation of the two farms, is laid out. This is a film filled with significant but unobtrusive detail. The attention to detail in every frame comes from Grimur’s experience in making documentary films.
Then the focus shifts to a sheep that has something wrong with it. The farmer picks it up and carries back toward the buildings. It is the first hint that something might be wrong in this bucolic landscape. It also is the beginning of a plot in which small details that seem insignificant will begin to turn the story toward the final outcome. In a successful plot, every event must cause another event. There should never just be a series of events without causality. Rams with its subtleties, its hints and suggestions, carefully fits the causes of each coming event into everyday life so that what happens is both logical and necessary but not obvious.
The use of silence emphasizes the importance of the sparse dialogue, makes the audience pay attention to every word that is spoken. It also forces the audience to pay close attention to actions, whether it is one of the brothers eating mutton soup or a prize ram impregnating a group of ewes.
A central scene is a local sheep competition in which Kiddi‘s prize sheep edges out Gummi‘s. Although this is only an annual local event to determine the best sheep, it provides opportunities to demonstrate how important it is to the participants. Gummi‘s reaction to his prize sheep being relegated to second place makes clear the intensity of the competition. The story line moves slowly because this is a story of local, personal values that the viewer must come to understand. For the film to work, a non-Icelandic audience has to understand the role of the sheep in the lives of the local people.The precipitating incident is the discovery of the disease scrapie. It attacks the spine and brain of sheep and there is no cure. With careful layering of scenes, the film prepares the audience to understand how serious an event this is and validates the behaviour of the brothers.
Since there is no cure for scrapie, the local veterinarian decrees that all the sheep in the valley must be killed. When that happens, it not only means that the valley’s sheep farmers will lose their livelihood but it will be the end of a breed of sheep that has existed back to Iceland´s earliest history. Anyone who knows Icelandic history knows that sheep made the continued habitation of Iceland possible. In a country with only one possible crop, hay, the sheep provided milk, wool, and meat for both local consumption and trade goods. Although Iceland has urbanized, its rural traditions are still strong. The end of sheep farming in the valley is emblematic because it is not just the end of a way to make a living but the end of a way of life.
In a different context, the conflict of the two brothers might have seemed trivial; the scheming and planning to defy the order to kill the sheep, absurd. However, in the context of the film, the events move the narrative toward tragedy. With sparse dialogue and no large physical events, the intense focus of the film is on the two brothers. Gradually, although the viewer is shown many rams, it becomes clear that the rams in the title are the two brothers. At loggerheads over some long distant conflict only hinted at when it is revealed that both farms are in Gummi’s name because their father didn’t trust Kiddi’s judgement.
The movie has a solemnity about it. The landscape, the conflict, the seriousness of the situation for the local people all contribute to the mood. However, the film is shot through with wry Icelandic humour. Although the brothers haven’t spoken to each other for forty years, they do communicate by a collie that carries messages back and forth between them. There is also an unusual use of a front end loader that brought startled laughter. This stage business is amusing and enjoyable. At the same time the humour is more than stage business. The situation of the brothers is, in some ways, ridiculous and the ridiculous can be amusing, but Grimur takes some of his directorial cues from the sagas where a bleak humour is often mixed with the most horrific events.
The stars are Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodor Júlíusson. With their ferocious beards and weathered faces, they might be Viking chieftains during the time of the great conflict of the Sturlungs. Much is demanded of them as actors because so much focus is on their physical expression rather than their dialogue. They began preparing for their roles a year and a half before the film was made. Grimur developed back stories for them, that is the lives of their characters before the time of the film, so that their character’s actions would be logical and consistent with their current lives as elderly sheep farmers.
The attention to detail in the visual images and in the characters, the fitting together of the incidents that comprise the plot, unifies and intensifies the film. Grimur spent three years writing the script. His attention to detail in all the film’s aspects–characterization, plot, setting, dialogue, and theme–give the film the sense of reality that might be found in a documentary while, at the same time, create a narrative voice that can be trusted.
Because of the intense local rendering, in less adept hands, the film might have been parochial. Instead, the story takes on universal implications. It is about men and sheep at one level, about rural displacement at another level, but at the most important level, it is about the fierce family resentments between brothers. The film explores the forces that separate us but also those that bind us.
When Rams was shown at Cannes, it won the Un Certain Regard prize. It has been selected for the 2016 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. The film has been sold to more than forty countries. It has the distinction of being an Icelandic film that not only will garner prestigious prizes but might actually be commercially successful.
Shown at the Victoria Film Festival, sponsored by the Richard and Margaret Beck Lecture series, and introduced by Helga Thorson, the head of Germanic and Slavic studies, Rams played to a sold-out house.