“Rams” is named not only in honor of the sheep that are central to its story but also because of two men, as hardheaded and rambunctious as they come, who are devoted to the sheep but can’t stand each other.
Written and directed by Grimur Hakonarson and winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, “Rams” is the latest in a series of excellent films to come out of Iceland, including dramas like “The Deep,” “Jar City,” “Noi Albinoi” and “101 Reykjavik.”
Serious and moving but also with a bleaker than bleak Scandinavian sense of humor, “Rams” is so much its own film that figuring out where its unusual, unpredictable plot will end up is difficult if not impossible.
Director Hakonarson has a documentary background, and he and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen (who did the eye-catching “Victoria”) have shot “Rams” in Budardalur, in the north of Iceland, an area of remote and stunning landscapes that always engage the eye.
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The two men in question not only can’t stand each other, they are bearded bachelor brothers who haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years though they’ve spent all that time living on adjoining sheep-raising farms.
Younger brother Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjonsson) is a quiet man, with soft eyes sunken deeply into a soulful face. Though “Rams” spends most of its time with him, his life can’t be understood without referencing his older brother.
That would be Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson), a large, loud and rambunctious man, kind of an angry Falstaff who also has an on again, off again problem with alcohol.
Though Sigurjonsson and Juliusson are two of Iceland’s most accomplished actors, they so immersed themselves in the milieu one would swear this was yet another of the director’s documentaries, filmed on site with a hidden camera.
What these brothers share, despite the bitterness that is always evident in their nonspeaking hostility, is a love of the sheep they raise. Both men, but especially Gummi, talk extensively to their animals, treating them as if they were friendly dogs or even children.
Also loving the sheep was director Hakonarson, who reported in the press notes that “we had a ‘sheep rehearsal period’ for several days, where we only rehearsed scenes with sheep. ... If ever they decide to give awards to animal actors in films, I am certain that our sheep are amongst the most deserving, and that they will go home with a few statues.”
Given how much everyone loves his sheep (an amusing epic poem to them is even read in an opening scene), it is a severe shock to the entire area when an affliction known as scrapie is discovered in the herds.
Scrapie is an incurable infectious disease that attacks the animal’s brain and spinal cord, and the only way it can be controlled is to kill every single sheep in the vicinity.
While this situation is traumatic to everyone involved, it is especially devastating to Gummi and Kiddi, who have no lives outside of their sheep and cannot even imagine how to begin living without them.
Though not even thinking of talking to each other, both men instinctively rebel, each in his own characteristic way, against those draconian regulations.
That in turn leads to situations neither man could have imagined.
Directed by Hakonarson with a sure hand and a knack for making everything seem real, “Rams’” story of rivalry and hostility is not without its moments of bizarre humor, like the way the brothers communicate with each other by using a message-carrying dog named Sami. It’s a cold world up there, and the absurd is never very far away.
Rated: R for language, brief graphic nudity. Starring: Sigurour Sigurjonsson, Theodor Juliusson and Charlotte Boving. Director: Grimur Hakonarson. Running time: 93 minutes. Theater: Flicks.