Rams–Movie Review

ramscover
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.

Virgin Mountain Icelandic Film

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The Vic theatre was packed. Extra chairs were lined up at the rear. A quick trailer for the movie, Rams, was shown. There was no need for the trailer to encourage people to go to Rams. Both Virgin Mountain and Rams had been sold out for days. The audience for the annual Victoria Film Festival know their films and were aware that Virgin Mountain, the Icelandic-Danish film by Dagur Kári, had won not only the top prize at Tribeca, but also an acting award for lead Gunnar Jonsson. As well, Icelandic films have steadily developed a reputation for excellence.

Helga Thorson, the head of German-Slavic Studies, and the new head of The Richard and Margaret Beck Lectures on Icelandic Literature, greeted the packed house, mentioned that anyone who might be interested in the ongoing lectures could pick up a pamphlet in the lobby and that the Beck was financially sponsoring Virgin Mountain.

The film began brilliantly with nothing but images, no dialogue. It was obvious that this was going to be a film in which we were going to be shown the story, not told about it, and with its quiet beginning that is was going to be a film of subtext that would demand the audiences’ attention. There is no dialogue to break the audience’s focus on images and the need to interpret them. The film creates an intimacy between the main character, Fusi, and the audience, beginning the process of creating an understanding of the silence in which Fusi lives.

Gradually, his life at work, at home and beyond are revealed. At work, he is bullied, at home, he lives with his mother and her boyfriend, and beyond is limited to every Friday going to the same Asian restaurant and ordering the same meal. Often, he sits in his truck and calls a local radio station to ask for the disc jockey to play heavy metal. At home, he entertains himself by reconstructing historic battles with toy soldiers.

At forty-three, his life is settled, determined. He is socially inept and unpracticed. His huge body (the mountain in the title) makes him an unlikely object of an woman’s romantic fantasy. Into this predictable life, a precipitating incident occurs in the person of his mother’s boyfriend who is determined to get Fusi out of the house. He gives Fusi a certificate for line dancing lessons for his birthday. His mother gives him a cowboy hat. Protesting all the while, Fusi does go to the first lesson but before it begins, he retreats to sit in his truck in the falling snow.

He sits in the dark watching the light from the door that leads to the dance lessons. It’s a wicked winter night out. Nearly everyone has left when a figure we can only obscurely see through the falling snow appears, comes up to the truck window, and asks if Fusi would mind giving her a ride. Fusi is taken aback but agrees. And so, as in much good narrative, the repetitious, unbreakable, known present is disrupted.

New possibilities arise as he agrees to give Sjöfn a ride. It is a pattern we have all seen and experienced in both life and drama. What makes this film brilliant is the way Fusi’s the new possibilities are played out.

When learning to write narrative, whether fiction or drama, one of the hardest lessons is to understand and master the relationship between text and subtext. Many students deny subtext exists, that is, until asked if they ever flirt. A discussion of flirting with its subtle suggestions of desire and possibility begins to open an understanding of how to create unstated possibilities. Dagur Kári is someone who understands subtext and uses it to great effect to create both sorrow and laughter.

In an early scene, Fusi goes for his usual Friday pad thai at the same Asian restaurant and the proprietor says, “The usual?” Later, when Fusi takes Sjöfn to the restaurant, not only is her presence such a change filled with hope that the proprietor gives them a complimentary appetizer. The scene is filled with information for the viewer. The delight of the proprietor says something about the fact that Fusi, in spite of his seldom speaking, being a genuinely likeable person.

Sjöfn says to Fusi, you come here every Friday, you must be an expert on the menu and he has to admit that he always orders the same thing. Not only is the scene humorous as she asks her questions and is taken aback by Fusi’s answers, but Fusi’s short confessions reveal how small is the world he has created for himself. The scene is brilliant but it is only one of many that is brilliant.

The restrained dialogue works very well. Life is filled up with silences. But actions can be filled with meaning and dialogue can counter point it.

When Fusi first gives Sjhön a ride, their conversation is both crazy and funny. “You’re not weird are you? You aren’t going to rape me?,” she asks. Fusi has to think about the question before replying with his rather puzzled no. She asks him a number of questions and his answer is always no, but it isn’t a defensive no or an angry no. It’s a no that says what she is asking is inconceivable. In a scene with his mother, he’s cooking in his mother’s kitchen, his mother comments on how his cooking has improved and asks about Sjhön. The dialogue is common, ordinary but filled with his mother’s fears.

This is a movie of deft moves by the director, by right on performances by the actors, major and minor. It is not a big movie with a large landscape, a cast of thousands, a pounding musical score, violent action. It is like a delicately constructed box filled with surprising compartments. Some of the compartments contain tears, some laughter, some deep thought, some hope, some compassion, some disappointment. It creates individuals and scenes that will stay etched on the viewer’s memory for a very long time.

In a film with so little dialogue, every word is important. Every word must move the plot forward and, doing triple duty, reveal character while developing theme. Gunnar Jónsson is known in Iceland as a TV comedian. He understands the importance of words, their pacing, and the way they are said. His (Fusi’s) repeated, not quite comprehending no’s do more than a speech would from someone else. Playing against him is Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) and she, wracked by euphoria and depression, has a voice filled with emotion. She brings possibilities, not just of sex (as some of Fusi‘s coworker baggage handlers at the airport would see it) and love, but of Fusi escaping the small, insulated life he has created for himself.

After watching Virgin Mountain, I thought of the magic casket that Steinar of Hliöar made for the king of Denmark. “It was divided into several compartments of different sizes. Under the largest compartments, which were detachable, was the bottom; but there was more to that than met the eye, because under it there lay three, some say four, secret compartments which no one could open except by an ingenious special device”. And so does Dagur build his film, scene by scene, each one so there is much more than meets the eye, each one creating the layered reality of what looks on the surface like a simple life.

Egill, the brutal poetic puzzle

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Egill isn’t as loved as Erlendur. The audience, while a good size at today’s Beck lecture about Egill´s Saga was about half what it was for Torfi Tulinius´s first lecture on the detective novel in Iceland. Obviously, there are a lot more people reading Icelandic mystery novels than Icelandic sagas. However, this second lecture was just as good as the first. Like all good lectures, it sent me away thinking about things I hadn’t thought about for a long time.

Many decades ago, I took a course on the sagas with Haraldur Bessason. I got to know many strange characters, characters pagan to the core, killing each other in fits of rage, because of jealousy, of honour, out of greed, but today Torfi brought a new way of looking at the sagas. Yes, I knew that the sagas were written two hundred years or so after the events they describe. By that time, Iceland was Catholic Christian. That means it was Catholic Christians who were writing the sagas or influencing the writing of the sagas. Do a little research and you will see how Catholicism dominated Iceland. But Torfi made me look at the meaning of that.

Torfi argued that Egill’s saga and others were written by educated men who knew the Bible, knew the stories of both the Old and New Testament. Many sagas follow the traditions of and are obviously influenced by European story telling. I knew that. But I hadn’t thought of looking at some of the major sagas of earlier times as having as models stories from the Bible.

Too often we think of the Vikings as being hermetically sealed away from the rest of the world while at the same time saying that they went raiding, that they served in the court in Russia, that they founded Kiev. We do the Vikings a disservice. They didn’t just go on a raid, kill everyone they met, steal all their stuff and sail home. They dealt with people from many different countries not just as raiders but as traders.

There’s no direct proof but many scholars believe that Snorri Sturluson wrote Egill’s saga. If that is true, then in reading the saga, we have to look not just at the society in which Egill lived but also the society in which Snorri lived.
Torfi started by mentioning his book, The Enigma of Egill, The Saga, The Viking Poet and Snorri Sturluson published by Cornell University Library in the Islendica series. It is open access and can be read on line.

Egill’s saga was written in the first half of the 13th C. It is about Egill Skalla-Grimsson who lived in the 10th C. The saga tells us about traveling, mythology, poetry, politics, ethics, Viking life and when it gathered together becomes the living memory of a past time.

Torfi talked about the Viking diaspora and once he named it, it was obvious that during Viking times there was diaspora. One has only to look at a map (he provided one) with arrows showing Viking travels: Greenland, Newfoundland, Norway, Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, Russia, Denmark. Relatives and friends went to these places and some stayed.

The Vikings, of course, were able to travel as they did because of their light, shallow boats that allowed them to come ashore and up rivers. Listening to Torfi, I was immediately reminded of watching the Viking movie at the Royal British Columbia museum and seeing the Viking exhibit.

These boats allowed the Vikings to be opportunistic. Their boats allowed them to attack Lindisfarne Abbey in AD 793, a raid which is often regarded as the beginning of the Viking era. They raided Noirmoutie in AD 799, along the Atlantic coast and Galacia and Portugal, through the Mediterranean. Mythology has it that Kiev was founded by two Scandinavian brothers and their sister. The Viking effect may not have been as strong in the East as the West as was explained by a member of the audience but I said to Torfi that when I got off the train in Kiev, the person greeting me said, “Welcome, cousin.”

The Vikings went on to create petty kingdoms or domains in Ireland, Orkney, Scotland, Caithness, Helsinki, and Normandy. Finally, when they lost the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, the Viking age was considered over.
Iceland, with its separation from Europe, kept and cultivated the memory of this diaspora. At the same time, the age provided a social structure made up in part of free farmers led by chieftains or petty kings, a tradition of assemblies and a rule of some kind of law.

During all the Viking era and afterwards, Icelanders were in constant interaction with Christian Europe. They didn’t just kill the Christians and loot churches. Christianity brought cultural influences. Viking leaders, Kings, adopted their values and behaviour. So much so that by the early 12 C the Nordic countries had become part of Christian Europe.

If anyone is interested in this Viking diaspora, Torfi suggested reading The Viking Diaspora by Judith Jesch.

By the middle of the 12th C. the church was providing new organization and learning. The chieftains had political power and were judges so they had great control. They started to learn to write. It became important to write down poetry, narration and law, not just religion.

While languages changed in Europe, Icelandic remained much the same. That meant that as time passed Icelanders had the ability to read their past literature. They became the keepers of the collective memory. Icelanders traveled to European courts as skalds. They brought knowledge of the past but not just as history but also as poetry, drama and laws. It became part of the role of Icelanders to be the keepers of Scandinavian culture. That led to the development of writing techniques and to commissions to write biographies of kings.

The sagas that resulted were composed in Iceland. They were prose narratives. The main characters were Icelanders. Some, if not all the action takes place in Iceland. They cover from the settlement period to the Conversion or a short period after that.

Torfi took us through the arguments for Egill’s saga to have been written by Snorri Sturluson and then told us about Snorri. Snorri lived from 1179-1241. He was a chieftain, ruled over a large domain, a poet, a historian, a courtier (he went to Norway to live at court at times), a manipulator and became powerful because he knew how to use the resources available.

During the lecture, I wished that Joan Cadham hadn’t died last week. I would like to have emailed her and asked her what she thought of looking at Egill’s saga from the point of view of a Catholic writing it. She was an intellectual Catholic, knew her religion and history, knew a Catholic point of view.

Torfi said here we have a Christian telling the story of a pagan. Why was the writing of the story so important? Why tell a story about Egill? He’s brutal, does horrible things but is also a poet. Toward the end of his life, Snorri has gone to Norway, returned to find his domain fallen into disrepair. He’s in conflict with his older brother. He attempts to bring people together. What does his rise and fall have to do with how he sees the past and the present? Is a Christian story is being told in Egill´s saga? Perhaps, Torfi said during the question period, it was the story of King David. There are numerous parallels.

Egill, King David, the saga as a Christian tale. Perhaps as one of the audience said it is merely an attempt at revisionist history. Or, maybe that niggling problem I’ve had ever since I studied sagas with Haraldur Bessason, that problem of knowing that when the sagas were written, Iceland was Catholic and Christian and the writers were Christian and educated, that problem of wondering why they wrote them.

During the question period, Torfi recited eight lines of poetry from memory. The lines were from a long poem. The king of Norway has had a chieftain killed because he’s becoming afraid of him. The chieftain’s relatives capture and kill the king’s messengers and two royal children. The poetry tersely describes what has been done to the victims. I could imagine if that verse had not been recited in a well-lit classroom but in a baðstofa with nothing but a few weak candles as I sat on a bed and knitted mittens with the wind screeching and the rain falling and shadows everywhere. For a moment I knew the power of the old stories.

The Detective Novel in Iceland: Beck Lecture

Dr. Tulinius

The place was packed. I quit counting at sixty.

And it wasn’t just the numbers but who was there. This is Victoria, remember, not Winnipeg, and there were the Consul General, Hjalmar Hannesson and his wife, Anna. With them were Bill and Heather Ireland. Heather is the Honorary Consul in Vancouver.

Dr. John Tucker, Medievalist, has retired. He has directed the Richard and Margaret Beck Lectures from the very beginning. Dr. Helga Thorson, Chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies is the new director. She introduced herself and the speaker Dr. Torfi Tulinius.

Dr. Tulinius wasn’t intimidated by a room full of Arnaldur Indriðason groupies. He launched right into his eagerly awaited talk, “The Detective Novel in Icelandic: From Jóhann M. Bjarnason to Arnaldur Indriðason“.

Torfi has a Phd from the Sorbonne, is Professor of Medieval Icelandic Studies in the School of Humanities at the U. Of Iceland. He is interested in a broad subject matter: Medieval Icelandic Literature, Medieval history, narrative theory, and psychoanalysis. He used something from all those fields to tell us about Indriðason´s writing and Indriðason himself. However, he first put Indriðason´s novels in context.

The detective novel in Icelandic could first be attributed to Jóhann M. Bjarnason in 1910. JMB, an Icelandic Canadian writer, wrote a short story that had a protagonist who uses Conan Doyle´s techniques to solve a mystery.
Not much happens from then until after the war when Valur Vestan writes some mystery fiction However, it really isn´t until the 1970s that detective fiction, murder mysteries start to appear by people like Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, Gunnar Gunnanson, Brigitta Halldórsdóttir, and Leo Löwe.
In 2001 crime fiction was still not taken seriously because Icelandic writers felt that there was so little crime in Iceland that there was nothing to write about.

It wasn´t until the late 90s mystery writing started to catch the attention of both Icelandic writers and public.

Because of the importance of literature in Iceland, crime fiction created a reaction. It was a stranger in the family where poetry and serious literary work were admired and understood. Literature in Iceland is an important part of the national identity. People didn´t know quite how to react. The Sagas and Eddas had preserved the language and kept it distinct from other languages. As well, the Eddas and Sagas had played an important part in Iceland´s gaining independence from Denmark.

Modern prose writers such as Gunnar Gunnarsson and Halldor Laxness were considered serious writers. They fitted into the literary image held by Icelanders. Sixty years ago in 1955 Laxness received the Nobel prize and with it created recognition world wide of Icelandic literature.

Crime fiction intruded into the serious literariness of the Icelanders but, because of its success abroad, it had a driving force that could not be ignored. Iceland was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011. That was, at least in part, because of the wide readership and praise for crime fiction written by Icelandic writers.

Torfi gave a slide show as he lectured. It made following the historic story easier to follow. He entitled one section “Is crime fiction a stranger to the family?”

He answered this question by demonstrating that there are elements of mystery solving in the sagas. One of those was the mysterious murder of Vésteinn and then Gisli´s murder of his bother-in-law, Porgrímur. In another saga episode the dead are brought back to reveal that a crime has been committed. Even in societies that don’t have police forces crimes need to be discovered and dealt with.

At this point, Torfi turned to telling us something about Indriðason´s background. Like his father, he was a journalist. Arnaldur reviewed Scandinavian crime fiction. He developed a wide knowledge of Icelandic modern history. Using that knowledge, he recreates a fictional world that incorporates modern elements that people know about. In The Draining Lake, he has as an important element of Russian spy equipment. It is a little bit of history that people only remember when prodded.

While he creates the Iceland that was rushed pell-mell out of history into the present by WWII, he is influenced by the sagas with their themes of revenge, honour, and family loyalty. His novels often revolve around families and their relationship.

One particularly interesting fact was that the name of his main character, Erlendur, means foreigner or stranger. It immediately made sense for Erlendur, the depressed, moody detective, obsessed with the missing and the past, is from the country, from old Iceland. He lives in Reykjavik, in new Iceland. He is uncomfortable there. As a policeman he sees the stresses and strains, the ruptures and disruptions of family life, the cost of urbanization.

Torfi finished by telling us that Indriðason writes a book a year. He is looking forward to the new one being released, as usual, on November 1. You could tell from the reaction of the audience that there will be a lot of people at the bookstores in Victoria when this latest novel becomes available. I´ll be one of them.

If you get a chance to hear Dr. Torfi Tulinius talk about the detective novel be sure to attend. He´s a good lecturer and will leave you satisfied but wanting to know more.