Shorn the Sheep
It is inviting to eulogize without reservation the brothers who are heart and soul of Rams/Hrútar. Shaggy as unshorn sheep, they are intended by writer-director Grímur Hákonarson as “archetypes . . . very rare in modern society, stubborn, autonomous, [and] I like eccentricity and peculiarity.” Note, however, that he adds, “to a certain point.” Depending on one’s politics regarding, say, the armed occupation of Malheur Reserve in Oregon or Jane Mayer on the Koch brothers, the two are either irascible but admirable individuals, or else they selfishly endanger others’ livelihoods and the greater good of the many.
In either case, this appropriately laconic laidback ninety-three minutes is a gem in line with Iceland’s reduced, underpublicized and underappreciated output of bone-dry humor even when sometimes also tragic as well, in 101 Reykjavik, The Seagull’s Laughter, Noi the Albino and Brúđguminn, titles hard to dig up but most rewarding to the searcher.
Full-bodied and -bearded and scraggly, lifelong bachelor brothers Gummi and Kristinn “Kiddi” (Sigurđur Sigurjónsson, Theodór Júlíusson) live a stone’s throw apart on adjacent farms but for forty-odd years have not exchanged a word, why is not important or broached. The former actually owns the latter’s house and barn, inherited from the mother who extracted the promise that he allow his elder, more difficult sibling to live there forever. Communicating only when necessary by penciled notes mouth-carried by dog Somi, the two occasionally cross paths but not talk at community events like the annual best ram contest won by a hair’s breadth 86.5 to 86.0 by Kiddi’s Sproti over Gummi’s Garpur. The upset loser investigates on the sly and finds evidence of neurological ovine disease scrapie.
The highly contagious, fatal, incurable virus confirmed by official veterinarian Katrín (Charlotte Böving), the town meeting concurs in imposing the time-honored remedy of destroying every last one of the valley’s sheep and burning or disinfecting all installations, implements and hay feed that have come into contact with them. The in-effect two-year quarantine will ruin some of the Budardalur locals, a few of whom will be so bankrupted they move away.
Sheep are a way of life for this Nordic island nation of not much over a million living beings, of whom eight hundred thousand are sheep, seriously jokes Hákonarson. On top of the emotional connection with them, Gummi cannot endure the thought of ending their long family line of carefully bred animals. Thus, he anticipates the arrival of exterminating authority by himself doing away with, he says, an entire flock of a hundred forty-seven. In reality, hidden in the basement are stud Garpur and seven fertilizable ewes.
More from the heart than the wallet, this law-defying attachment leads to suspense, complications and more intense sibling animosity. Gummi twice rescues angry dead drunk Kiddi from death in winter snow, once in his bathtub and again on the plow of a tractor. Blood being in the end thicker, and sheep being in the blood as well, the estranged men will need to work together, although, in spite of a duressed “It’s going to be just fine, my dear Gummi,” the naked ending is at best ambiguous, and sad at worst.
A few long shots suffice to draw the inhospitable climate and weathered ruggedness of terrain, but Rams is by no means a winter-wonderland travelogue. Skies are leaden, interior light filtered, music sparse; nothing is here to detract from the two- and four-legged protagonists.
Cannes 30,000-euro Un Certain Regard, also screened at Telluride and Toronto and scheduled for Sundance, Rams is quiet, measured and charming. Whether or not implications of individual versus group good are intended, beyond this question it is a non-maudlin mostly feel-good to be enjoyed.
(Released by Cohen Media Group and rated “R” for language and graphic nudity.)