“Rams” is a touching humanist drama set in a remote farming valley where two estranged brothers must come together to save what’s dearest to them: their sheep. Helmer-writer Grimur Hakonarson, an experienced documentarian, capitalizes on his extensive knowledge of Icelandic bachelor farmers and the unique landscapes of his homeland, while spicing the proceedings with some wonderfully wry, charmingly understated comic moments. Like his compatriot Benedikt Erlingsson in “Of Horses and Men,” Hakonarson lovingly captures a deeply rooted rural culture that is closely connected to the Icelandic national spirit. Further fest action is guaranteed, with niche arthouse play likely.
Although they have not spoken to one another for 40 years, Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and older brother Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) live on neighboring farms against a harsh and majestic northern landscape that becomes a fateful character in the action as autumn gives way to winter. Both men breed sheep from the same ancient pedigree, and each year they are rivals in a valley-wide competition for best ram.
When Kiddi’s flock shows signs of scrapie (BSE), an incurable and highly contagious virus that attacks the brain and spinal cord, the veterinary authorities decree that all the sheep in the valley must be destroyed. It’s a devastating blow for the local farmers, but the order hits hard-drinking, unruly Kiddi and quiet, thoughtful Gummi particularly hard, and they rebel against the rules in their own distinct ways.
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With a keen eye for detail, Hakonarson naturalistically presents the rigors of farm work, the plainness of his solitary protagonists’ lives and their deep affection for their sheep. Spot-on production design by Bjarni Massi Sigurbjornsson supplies interiors that look as if they haven’t changed since the 1940s, but which also provide reams of character information. The worn-looking Icelandic sweaters and ripped flannels that the brothers wear also speak volumes about men living without women.
In a low-key running joke, Gummi’s moments of repose in the bathroom (whether trimming his toenails with a gigantic set of scissors or relaxing in the tub) are continually interrupted. Other comic moments rise organically from the material, from the clever sheep dog that carries terse notes between the brothers to an unexpected use for a tractor’s front loader to some surprising nude scenes.
As Hakonarson’s beautifully modulated film progresses, recurring images contrast and poignantly resonate with meaning. A sheep pen bustling with baa-ing livestock is later filled with dead animals; Gummi’s scooping up of Kiddi’s frozen body after a drunken binge finds a tragic rhyme in the film’s finale. Although some of the action is heart-rending, Hakonarson maintains a respectful tone of admirable restraint throughout.
Of course, the main reason the film registers so affectingly is the casting of two of Iceland’s best thesps. As the older, angrier brother, Juliusson (so good in the 2011 Directors’ Fortnight title “Volcano”) shows a range that makes one long to see him as King Lear. But the audience sympathies are carried by Sigurjonsson, through whose kindly eyes the story unfolds.
Fresh off his bravura one-shot lensing of the Berlinale competition title “Victoria,” d.p. Sturla Brandth Grovlen shows his mettle with striking, naturally lit widescreen cinematography. Perfectly paced cutting by Kristjan Lodmfjord allows the material to breathe, while gorgeous, melancholy music by Atli Ovarsson (“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”) soars at key moments.