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Before we begin, let me acknowledge that I love Iceland, so my reaction to this movie may differ from yours. Iceland is a famously literary country, where something like 1 in 10 residents have written books. And the Icelandic Sagas are not only the earliest great literature that is not religious but are kind of proto-novels. And, though he's not well enough remembered to day, the tiny nation has even produced a Nobel Laureate, Halldor Laxness. His Independent People is the great novel of Iceland, telling the story of a stubborn sheep farmer's determination to own his own land and flock and to prevail against the forbidding island's climate (and against worms and other parasites). In Rams, director Grímur Hákonarson has made a film that begins with characters and themes out of Laxness but by its end has taken on a mythical quality like a story out of the sagas or even Norse mythology.

Gummi and Kiddi are sheep farming brothers in a desolate valley in northern Iceland. Their respective herds are descended from a famously great line of sheep. But they are respective herds because the two have not spoken in 40 years. If they have to communicate they write notes and have the dog deliver them. Kiddi lives in the family homestead, Gummi in a building a hundred yards away. They lead solitary lives although Kiddi does go out drinking with unfortunate frequency, which may be the source of their estrangement, and Gummi has to rescue him from hypothermia a couple of times, including a hilarious instance where he scoops him up with a front-loader, drives him to town, and dumps him in front of the hospital. Early on, the viewer is reminded of a film like Local Hero, with character behaviors that are just quirky enough that we can't know whether they are messing with us.

One of the few occasions where the two go out in public is for the local breeder show. Gummi, who has a stronger relationship with his flock, is elated (which for him is shown by a slight smile) when his prize ram comes in second, but then devastated (he frowns a bit) when Kiddi takes first, by just the smallest of margins. When the disbelieving Gummi examines Kiddi's animal he is stunned to discover that it has scrapie, the scourge of sheep populations, a transmissible, fatal brain disease (like Mad Cow). Other reviewers have said that Gummi reports the disease out of jealousy, but the terror with which he drags his own ram out of the pen and races home to scrub it in his own bath tub suggests instead that he is genuinely panicked. The solution, such as it is, to scrapie outbreaks is destruction of all the local herds to the last beast. Sure enough, that's what the authorities order.

[N.B. From here on there will be spoilers that will mar your enjoyment of the film if you haven't seen it.]

While Kiddi resists the order and is taken away, Gummi, in a shattering scene, executes the order himself, shooting his herd singly. He then performs the required cleaning of the stone stalls/pens and removal of any wood that may retain the disease. But when he is ordered to burn his hay too, he behaves oddly, taking several bags to the basement. It turns out he has saved and hidden the ram and enough ewes to restart the family breed after the crisis passes (two years is required).

It's obviously no easy task to hide sheep in your house, even when you get as few visitors as the brothers. Several funny scenes occur where Gummi tries to blame the noises in his basement on his cats. But first Kiddi and then a health inspector discover the truth and Gummi pleads with his brother to hide the sheep. Ironically, the feud between the brothers is so notorious that no one even thinks to check the other house.

Eventually though, they have no choice but to try and hide in the uplands and they set out together, herding the sheep with an ATV and the dog as an epic snow storm closes in. What follows will be familiar to anyone who reads the great Detective Erlender series by Arnaldur Indriðason. Erlender is obsessed with stories of Icelanders who were lost in such storms after losing his brother in one as a child. Here, the brothers lose the sheep, then each other and by the time Kiddi finds Gummi the latter is frozen near to death. Kiddi digs a snow cave for them and strips them both down to try and use bodily warmth to save his brother. They (presumably) die locked in a naked embrace, buried in a womb-like cavity in the snow. The beauty of the final image elevates what has been an enjoyable film into something transcendent, almost holy.

Everything in the movie is perfect. The cinematography uses the sweeping vistas of an American Western to convey the brothers' isolation and the hostility of their environment. The haunting score, by Atli Örvarsson, features organ and accordion as you've never heard them. Many of the secondary characters are played by actual farmer, but Gummi is Sigurður Sigurjónsson, a professional, and what he achieves with just his facial expressions is astonishing. Even the dog and the sheep give good performances. I'd seen the movie before our last trip but Icelandair was showing it on the plane and I made The Wife watch. Though skeptical, she loved it to. Personally, I don't know of a better 21st Century film.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

    -FILMOGRAPHY: Grímur Hákonarson (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Grímur Hákonarson
    -Grímur Hákonarson (United Agents)
    -Grímur Hákonarson (Letterboxd)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Grímur Hákonarson (Icelandic Film Centre)
    -FILM SITE: Rams (Cohen Media Group)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: The County (2019) Héraðið (original title) (IMDB)
    -SOUNDTRACK: The County by Valgeir Sigurðsson (Bandcamp)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Rams (2015) Hrútar (original title) (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Rams
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Sigurður Sigurjónsson (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Atli Örvarsson (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Atli Örvarsson
    -ARTIST SITE: Atli Örvarsson
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: All Access: Atli Örvarsson (Film.Music.Media, Sep 4, 2017)
    -SOUNDTRACK: Atli Örvarsson – Rams (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (Spotify)
    -Anatomy of a Scene | ‘Rams’: Grimur Hakonarson narrates a sequence from “Rams" (Mekado Murphy, Jan. 28, 2016, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: 'They're behaving as capitalists': the film inspired by Iceland's farming stranglehold: His wry parable Rams won acclaim at Cannes, but for his new film The County, Grímur Hákonarson delves into a shady world of farming co-operatives (Phil Hoad, 22 May 2020, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: Lights! Camera! Tractor!: Getting Real With Award-Winning Filmmaker Grímur Hákonarson (Angela Rawlings, August 16, 2019, Reyvjavik Grapevine)
    -INTERVIEW: Grímur Hákonarson on Rams’ follow up The County (ANNIKA PHAM, 27 AUGUST 2019, Nordisk)
    -INTERVIEW: Grímur Hákonarson • Director of The County: “Corruption is part of this community’s life”: Davide Abbatescianni, 11/09/2019, Cineuropa)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation With Grímur Hákonarson & Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir (THE COUNTY) *Christopher Reed, April 13, 2020 , Hammer to Nail)
    -INTERVIEW: ‘Rams’ Director Grímur Hákonarson on Icelandic Pastoral Life and Casting the Right Sheep (Sydney Levine, Feb 5, 2016, Sydney's Buzz)
    -PROFILE: New Film from Director of ‘Rams’ (Iceland Monitor, 17 Aug 2019)
    -INTERVIEW: Writer/Director Grímur Hákonarson Talks New Film ‘Rams’ (Stephen Jones, February 1, 2016, The Knockturnal)
    -INTERVIEW: 'Rams' director Hákonarson talks festivals and 'The County' (WENDY MITCHELL, 8 JULY 2016, Screen Daily)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: Grímur Hákonarson on Leading the Pack with “Rams” (STEPHEN SAITO, FEBRUARY 7, 2016, Moveable Feast)
    -ARTICLE: Sheepish success of Icelandic Rams movie (Emma Jones, 3 February 2016, BBC)
"I know this may sound humorous to you, but there seems to be a strong connection between men and sheep in Iceland, stronger than other animals. Not only because of historical and cultural reasons, people seem to get emotionally more attached to their sheep.

"I wanted to do a film about this connection; about the relationship between farmers and their sheep. Many farmers I know are bachelors; they live alone. The sheep become their family and best friends. The ties become stronger.

"Then I heard a story of two brothers who lived next to each other and didn't speak for 40 years. I think however, this was over a woman, but I found that story interesting and tragi-comical and maybe a bit Icelandic.

"Many Icelanders are stubborn and very independent. So I combined these two ideas into a script."

    -INTERVIEW: Grímur Hákonarson talks Rams (MATTHEW LEE, 2/06/16, Flickering Myth)
    -PROFILE: GRÍMUR HÁKONARSON AT THE FARM: Last year’s Cannes’ Un Certain Regard champion on stubborn Icelanders, photogenic sheep, and his sophomore feature Rams.(Kee Chang, 1 February, 2016, Anthem)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: “Rams” director Grímur Hákonarson talks Iceland and winning at Cannes (Jack Moulton, November 15, 2015,, Awards Circuit)
    -INTERVIEW: Grímur Hákonarson interview - "Rams" director (Thomas Humphrey, The Spread)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: 'Rams' Director Grímur Hákonarson on Working with Sheep and Icelandic Idiosyncrasy (Film Experience, February 3, 2016)
    -INTERVIEW: Rams - review and interview with director Grimur Hakonarson (Jason Di Rosso, 18 March 2016, ABC)
    -INTERVIEW: INTERVIEW: Director Grímur Hákonarson brings Icelandic ‘Rams’ to Film Forum (John Soltes, 2/02/16, Hollywood Soapbox)
    -INTERVIEW: Icelandic Director Grímur HáKonarson Discusses His Film ‘Rams’ and Global Warming (Sandra Miska, Entertainment Voice)
    -INTERVIEW: Dir. Grímur Hákonarson talks Rams and the particularity of Icelandic humor (Cooper Copeland, Campus Circle)
    -ARTICLE: Icelandic Locals Add Authenticity to New Film From ‘Rams’ Director Hakonarson (Alissa Simon, May 9, 2018, Variety)
    -ARTICLE: Icelandic drama ‘Rams’ gains attention for its many nude scenes (Iceland Magazine, MAY 15 2015)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVE: Rams (Metacritic)
    -REVIEW: of Rams (Leslie Felperin, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Rams (Mark Kermode, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Rams (Peter Rainer, CS Monitor)
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    -REVIEW: of Rams (Allan Hunter, Screen Daily)
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    -REVIEW: of The County (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The County (Valur Grettisson, Reyvjavik Grapevine)
    -REVIEW: of The County (Tara Brady, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW: of The County (Mark Kermode, the Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The County (Steven Saito, Moveable Feast)
    -REVIEW: of The County (PHIL DE SEMLYEN, TimeOut)
    -REVIEW: of The County (Norman Wilner, TIFF)
    -REVIEW: of The County (Nick Levine, NME)
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