'Rams': Cannes Review

A good wave of the flag from Iceland.

A simply but skillfully told tale of the hardships of isolated rural life in Iceland even today.

A small story about two old estranged brothers and their animals gently morphs from gentle near-absurdist comedy to something close to tragedy in Rams, a simply but skillfully told tale of the hardships of isolated rural life in Iceland even today. Too modest to gain significant traction as an art house attraction in competitive major international markets, documentarian Grimur Hakonarson’s second dramatic feature, after Summerland five years ago, will nonetheless represent its homeland well at festivals and in specialized situations where the animal and rural aspects of the film will be welcomed.

Humor is built into the set-up’s premise, as two aging and unmarried brothers and sheepmen live in houses right next to each other on a stunning barren landscape but haven’t spoken in forty years. They may not have women or children but, boy, do they love their rams, expertly bred and groomed critters in which their owners take infinite pride.

At this year’s local competition, a ram owned by gruff, gun-toting, alcoholic Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) very narrowly prevails for top prize over the one put forward by his more diligent, non-drinking brother Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson). This perceived injustice greatly irks Gummi, but it’s Kiddi who takes a pot-shot with his rifle through his brother’s bedroom window for being a sore loser.

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But this little border war pales by comparison to a new plague that visits them, that being the possible outbreak scrapie disease, a dreaded virus that attacks the brain and spinal cord of sheep and is both unpreventable and incurable. It doesn’t take long for vets to confirm the plague’s presence, meaning that both men will be forced to slaughter their entire herds, a crippling blow emotionally and economically.

Although devastated, the more logical and decisive Gummi quickly kills his 147 animals, while Kiddi dithers and drinks before submitting to the inevitable. Secretly, however, Gummi keeps several of his favorites alive in his basement, hoping no one will find out, although it isn’t long until Kiddi figures it out. They may not like it, but the two men are also forced to interact again, however minimally. As one says to the other, "No sheep. Just the two of us."

Hakonarson observes all this with the practiced eye of a good documentarian but, in the compositions, the rigorous timing of the editing and the performances of the two leads, he lifts the material beyond the observational to a modestly accomplished work that not only neatly observes an obscure lifestyle but brings to life a most peculiar sibling relationship.

The actors contribute significantly. For a good while, it’s especially Sigurjonsson, as the steadier as well as stealthier brother, who dominates. But in the late-going, when Gummi feels the impulse to make a major decision, it’s paradoxically Juliusson’s turn to shine, which the lumbering fellow does in the quite startling windswept climax that is both ambiguous and surprising in its emotional and meteorological ferocity.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)

Production: Netop Films, Profile Pictures, Film Farm, Aeroplan Films

Cast: Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, Theodor Juliusson, Charlotte Boving, Gunnar Jonsson, Porleifur Einarsson, Sveinn Olafur Gunnarsson, Jon Benonysson

Director: Grimur Hakonarson

Screenwriter: Grimur Hakonarson

Producer: Grimar Jonsson

Director of photography: Sturla Brandth Grovlen

Production designer: Bjarni ‘Massi’ Sigurbjornsson

Editor: Kristjan Lodmfjord

Music: Atli Orvarsson

93 minutes