Rams is a strange and beautiful film from Iceland. And we don’t hear much about Iceland these days. As a child, I pictured a place of endless glaciers and permanently frozen lakes, and was surprised to discover that it was also a place of gentle hills and verdant summer grasslands, with streets and houses and a capital city whose name I could never remember. Iceland was in the news the other day when their prime minister, Sigmundur Gumlauigsson, was revealed to have hidden large stacks of money in an overseas tax haven and forced to resign. I was reminded of another prime minister in a similar predicament – attacked in parliament for investing a chunk of his personal wealth in a tax-free haven in the Cayman Islands. His name escapes me, but I’m pretty sure he hasn’t resigned.
As its title would suggest, Rams is a film about sheep. And that’s another surprise. Sheep have never figured much in movies. We’ve seen any number of films about dogs, cats, horses, lions, birds and fish; even the humble pig landed a starring role in Babe. But Rams must be the first film in which sheep have made it to the big screen. With their mild little faces and general air of ungainliness, they must have rated too low on the Disney cuteness scale to clinch a spot in Fantasia or The Jungle Book or Snow White and Seven Dwarfs. Yet sheep have a sacred place in western culture. When we remember the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the parable of the lost sheep and many other biblical allusions, it’s surprising that Hollywood hasn’t given us a suitably reverential epic in honour of the humble bleater.
Rams was written and directed by Grimur Hakonarson, and more than one reviewer has described it as a comedy. It’s a “charmingly understated comedy” according to Variety, and “a marvel of deadpan comedy” in the opinion of the Wall Street Journal. I agree that its comic elements are understated, since I was never remotely aware of them while watching the film. But if Rams is a comedy, so is Romeo and Juliet. For me it’s one of the saddest films in a long time – delicate, poignant, profoundly humane, and immaculately photographed in some weather-beaten Icelandic outpost where blizzards, bleak skies and occasional bursts of sunshine mirror the moods of the characters.
It’s the story of two brothers – a pair of stout, rugged, well-bearded old codgers who look so alike that I had difficulty telling them apart. This proved a little confusing at first, but the underlying message of the film is so transcendentally simple that after a while it hardly seems to matter which brother is which. Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) – and no more of these funny Icelandic names, I promise – are sheep farmers, living a stone’s throw from each other in separate houses. Both are unmarried – where are the women, we wonder? – and as a result of some long-standing family feud they haven’t spoken to each other for 40 years. If communication is unavoidable, Kiddi’s dog carries a handwritten note from one brother to the other. (And that, come to think of it, is rather a funny idea, so Rams may have some comic elements after all.)
When a deadly sheep disease is identified in the valley, the local authorities order that all sheep must be slaughtered, threatening financial ruin for the farmers. Gummi, the more tender-hearted of the brothers, is reluctant to comply. He treats his sheep as pets, giving them names and fondling and cuddling them as others would a much-loved dog or cat. Under pressure from his neighbours and a no-nonsense local vet, he comes up with a plan of his own.
I’m making it sound like a bit of a tearjerker, but Hakonarson steers clear of sentimentality. Aided by two finely nuanced performances and a strong supporting cast, he delivers a rich moral fable of love and redemption, illuminated by a warm eye for the beauty and grandeur of the natural world. I liked the scene when Gummi rescues his comatose brother from the ravages of a snow storm and transports him to the nearest hospital in the scoop of an earth-moving tractor. (Another understated comic touch? Just possibly.) It’s hardly a surprise when the brothers are finally reconciled – we sense that from the beginning. The surprise is that Hakonarson’s film, with its odd mixture of realism and improbability, works with such effortless grace. Rams has won many awards, including a major prize at last year’s Cannes festival. All sheep – and countless filmgoers – have cause for celebration.
Rams, rated M, is in limited release.
Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.