starring Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Theodór Júlíusson, Charlotte Bøving, Gunnar Jónsson
written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson
by Walter Chaw There's a little of Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat in Grimur Hákonarson's Rams. Something of the formal beauty of La cinquième saison and the deadpan absurdity of Aki Kaurismaki's films as well. It is a story of brothers in conflict. More-functional recluse Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and less-functional recluse Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) are both hidden away in remote cabins in Iceland, tending to herds of sheep bred from a legendary stag whose lovingly-taxidermied head decorates Gummi's hovel's entryway. The picture opens in tension at a sheepherder's competition, where the prize stock is prodded and judged. And it ends in tension, as the two brothers, who haven't spoken in 40 years, must deal with the loss of everything while, just outside, an allegorical--but literal--storm obliterates the petty concerns of mortal men.
In between, Hákonarson, without the slightest hint of pretentiousness or self-satisfaction, deals with questions of eternity. He looks for it in the bonds that tie the brothers together, whether the safeguarding of their sheep, or the tetchy messages they send each other through their cattle dog, or the shared calamity of some of Kiddi's sheep coming down with scrapie (a disease of the nervous system in sheep), necessitating the culling of all the sheep in the valley. Hákonarson uses space brilliantly. The exteriors are impossibly expansive, the interiors impossibly closed-in. The space that closes the film is a suggestion that the inside only gets smaller, and the outside only expands. Gummi is constantly interrupted while in the tub; he's not able to be alone after forty years of solitude. Kiddi is constantly outside. The implication in the end is that their respective adaptations may have dictated their eventual fates.
Gummi and Kiddi resist the loss of their family's legacy stock--Gummi by secreting a few away (thus jeopardizing the viability of all livestock in the vicinity forever), Kiddi by drinking himself into a stupor. Neither is an effective medicine for melancholy, and Hákonarson demonstrates a veteran feeling for the line between pathos and humour. Rams is nothing if not deft in navigating that line. Consider that you root for Gummi's subterfuge while understanding its selfish irresponsibility; and that Kiddi's gesticulations are hilarious, all the way through to his habit of repeatedly almost-dying of exposure when he passes out in snow banks in the now-empty spaces between the brothers' houses. Though estranged, Gummi keeps saving Kiddi in an escalating series of gags (my favourite is the way he transports Kiddi to the hospital one time) that Hákonarson pays off by reversing the roles during an emotional punchline that lands like a blow to the gut. It's an elegant film full incongruously of low humour: pratfalls and surprise-streaking. It's a film very particularly of a place and time that feels as ageless as a fable. It is a beautiful film about ugliness and, at the end, kind of an ugly film about beauty. Rams is strange and familiar.