Independent People: Rams

RAMS_01_Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group_dd333b36-d045-e511-83e0-d4ae527c3b65_lg

Rams
Directed by Grímur Hákonarson
Opens February 3

Sometimes it’s the littlest things that are the most revelatory. Take the opening scene of Grímur Hákonarson’s poignant Icelandic dramedy (the top prizewinner of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section), in which the entire relationship between estranged farmer brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) is defined simply through a sick sheep changing hands.

Though they live in neighboring houses, the siblings haven’t spoken to each other in forty years. Gummi is brooding and envious, Kiddi is alcoholic and easily enraged. Their respective flocks of sheep are pretty much all they have. But after Gummi again takes second place to Kiddi in a local ram competition, he sneaks into his brother’s barn to examine the winning animal, only to discover it has a highly contagious virus known as scrapie. That revelation forces the siblings onto a slow path toward forgiveness, though it’s no easy road. The local authorities dictate that every sheep in the area must be killed to eradicate the virus. This is a terrible blow to Gummi and Kiddi, since their respective stocks have been bred for generations from the same lineage.

There are plenty of parallels between the destruction of this particular animal breed and the tenuousness of the relationship between the brothers, who appear to be the last of their own line. It’s to Grímur’s credit that he rarely hammers this home, choosing instead to use his background in documentary to ground us in the leisurely pace and the harsh beauty of the rural northern Iceland locale. Gummi and Kiddi’s interactions tend toward the comical, but the rock-steady widescreen cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen lends the proceedings a deadpan aura that wouldn’t be out of place in an Aki Kaurismäki or a Roy Andersson film. (Best in show: A scene in which Gummi used his front loader to dump a passed-out Kiddi in front of the emergency room.)

Eventually, the brothers are forced to team up despite their differences, and the way Grímur gets them to that point feels a bit too contrived in ways that the film’s earlier, more gently observational scenes do not. But the very moving finale, which takes place during a white-out blizzard that tests both siblings’ resolve, nearly makes up for the few narrative stumbles.

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