Hákonarson’s “Rams”: A Familiar Narrative from an Unfamiliar Setting
Issue   |   Tue, 04/12/2016 - 23:35
“Rams” is an Icelandic film written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson.

Foreign films have the unique ability to introduce their alien audience to a new culture, landscape, language and film tradition. Great foreign films transcend traditional films when the audience is not only absorbed in the narrative, but also in the nuances that only foreign films can offer. Where these films can fall flat to an international audience is when the unfamiliar becomes a distraction. The unconventionality of a film from a different nation can diverge attention from the narrative, however captivating the story might be. “Rams” is an Icelandic film written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, and its comfortable pace, stationary setting and intelligible narrative allow the audience to familiarize themselves with the nuances of Icelandic film and to appreciate the impressive work of Hákonarson.`

The movie’s first few scenes are accentuations of the scenic locations in which Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) lives as a sheep farmer. His farm, a small barn located only a few paces from his humbly-sized home, is framed by Hákonarson to emphasize his isolation in the mountains. These landscape shots are drawn out, but they aren’t an infliction of boredom or frustration. More so, these long shots encourage viewers to appreciate the scenery of Iceland and control the pace of a movie that continually seeks patience in order for it to be enjoyed.

After an introduction to the landscape, the film’s plot begins when Gummi brings his sheep to a small barn for a competition of finest ram. Gummi’s ram comes in second, and the winner is a man who we find out is his estranged brother, Kiddi (Theódór Júlíusson.) The hostility between these two brothers is well portrayed by both Júlíusson and Sigurjónsson; there is no dialogue between the two, but the looks they give one another and the body language they show in each other’s presence makes the hatred in their relationship palpable.

Where the two continue to thrive as actors is in their emotional connection with their sheep. The isolation that Hákonarson frames so well in the landscape shots makes it easy to understand why these men are so invested in their farm animals. Gummi and Kiddi’s loneliness is projected masterfully through their dependence on their sheep for any sort of companionship. This loneliness is exaggerated when scrapie, a fatal and incurable disease found in sheep, is found in the sheep on their farms. Kiddi and Gummi are utterly devastated when they are forced to slaughter all of their animals, and how they each handle this news begins to illuminate the differences between the two, and why they no longer speak.

The film never leaves their farms, and never really incorporates more than the two of them into the narrative’s arch, yet there is so much to appreciate within the film’s simplicity. The pace of the movie may feel slow, but Hákonarson offers a lot to engage with — Gummi’s oscillation from jealous introvert to supportive brother, Kiddi’s near-fatal alcoholism and seemingly unrelenting hatred the brothers becomes the focal point of the film, due mostly to the fact that what they both care about most, their sheep, is in jeopardy. Their curmudgeonly nature is both humane and spiteful; there is subtle charm in their bitter interactions, but the emotional strain that they both feel is impossible to ignore.

The story turns from brothers divided to an emotional reconciliation when the two work together to protect the remaining sheep on their farm. The sheep, which function both as a catalyst for division and reunion, ultimately draw Gummi and Kiddi together into a wind storm at the top of a mountain in the dead of winter. Though it may seem customary for a dramatic film to end in a transition from bitter hatred to loving unity, Hákonarson’s story doesn’t make this ending feel forced. The patience of the narrative and the strength of acting make Gummi and Kiddi seem far too stubborn to reconcile, yet the few moments of charm in the midst of this bitterness leave a sense of hope for the two to finally appreciate one another. “Rams” does a great job in demonstrating the relationship of the brothers as impossible of achieving coexistence, while leaving an ounce of hope that they will work through their differences.

“Rams” is situated in a part of the world that may be tough to recognize, but the emotions conveyed through the dark humor and humanist drama are incredibly familiar. The slow pace might cause some minor irritation, but the practical hour-thirty runtime seems like Hákonarson is cognizant of the speed of this film. Though a movie focusing on an 80-something year old Icelandic sheep farmer and his brother may seem peculiar, “Rams” frictionlessly incorporates its unfamiliar setting, people and language into a narrative that can be universally understood and appreciated.