I recently went to see RAMS, an Icelandic film written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, winner of Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2015. Set in rural Iceland, this story is about two bearded brothers who farm sheep and no longer speak to each other, until disease and the authorities threaten the survival of the last of their family livestock. I didn’t go to see this film with any particular expectations, except that I heard it was funny and award-winning. Plus, it was either Rams or The Revenant – both depicting white men with wild facial hair in freezing temperatures and with animals as co-stars. Rams won. After the screening, as the end credits rolled, a woman clearly affronted by the ending gasped – I thought it was supposed to be a comedy!
The set up IS comedic: Gummi and Kiddi are neighbors, they share the same gate, their land is divided by a wire fence. The death of a sheep undercut by Gummi’s non verbal communication made me laugh out loud. The prize rams are magnificent. The competition between the two main characters and their silent, brooding relationship is nicely set up. The men’s beards are as woolly as their livestock and their single mode of communication -handwritten notes passed between them by Kiddi’s sheepdog – is pure genius. Then tragedy hits the valley in the form of Scrapie, a fatal, degenerative disease affecting the nervous systems of sheep and goats. The result is enforced slaughter, the end to all sheep farming for at least two years, and it is Gummi who smells sickness on one of his brother’s animals and calls in the vet.
Gummi is the responsible, gentle, more thoughtful brother. Kiddi is the opposite, he’s drunken, gun toting and angry. When these three traits combine the man becomes terrifying, sending Gummi scuttling to the safety of his cellar. Kiddi is not even responsible for his own life, when too drunk to make it home he has a habit of passing out in freezing temperatures only to be found by Gummi or a passing vet. Twice Gummi saves him, once by heating him up in a bath which revives him to roaring fleshy naked life, and a second time scraping him up with his digger, driving him through the landscape, and unceremoniously dumping him at the hospital door. Kiddi is tough and each time he survives.
Their feud is long-running and eventually we realize this complicated set-up has been forced upon them. Soon, we also find out that Gummi is not the responsible brother at all. He is a man who loves his livestock as if they were family and, just like himself and his brother, the surviving animals are the last in their genetic line. It’s this family connection played out through their sheep that ultimately binds Gummi and Kiddi together, leading us to the final shot of the film where we feel the emotional charge that makes RAMS into such a wonderful piece of cinema.
It is as wryly comic as it is deftly dramatic, the ending is emotional and it is not, as the lady in my screening pointed out, a comedy.
Hákonarson’s beautifully executed balancing act allows us to feel but also leaves space to add ourselves to the story, despite not knowing much about sheep farming in Iceland. Just like life, it is both tragic and funny. It’s a simple story, sparsely written and with minimal dialogue, but is emotionally complex. It’s beautifully shot with solid and heartfelt performances and is one of those rare films that remind me why I love this filmmaking business.
If you haven’t done so already, see it.