Awareness builds as scenes seep into your consciousness as stealthily as the inevitable Icelandic mist, cut into your bones with the icy elements of nature that dominate life in this tight community along with the animals they depend upon for a grim living.
'We are resistant and tough whatever happens,' says the man who introduces the annual awards for best ram in the valley. 'Sheep are woven into our lives.' And it is the brutal reality of what happens when natural forces threaten the flocks that we are drawn into.
Watching this modern Icelandic saga unfold, it is as much a tale of two estranged brothers who have not spoken for forty years yet farm on adjacent land divided by a flimsy wire fence, as of the prize rams which exist on each side. Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) much resemble their rams: the same wild curly hair, untamed fleeces, locking their curly horns, fighting in the muck of the barn, showing as much stubborn resistance to each other as any rams on heat vying for the right to rut.
We are never told the cause of their disagreement but that does not matter, for we see and feel it in every silent move of the brothers as they circle around each other as if the other never existed. They communicate by letter, delivered rolled tight with a piece of string by their dog, and by violent acts like when Kiddi, drunk and foul mouthed shatters the darkness of a long Icelandic night by blasting the window of Gummi's house with a shotgun as he sleeps.
Their monosyllabic feud deepens as an attack of scrapie, similar to mad cow disease, means all the flocks in the valley have to be culled. The community's livelihood and reason for being are decimated, as the men from the ministry slaughter the flocks, ravaging farmland with JCBs and burying the carcasses. Official compensation is no comfort to those left bereft of not only their beloved flocks, but a reason for being in this stark, bleak, environment.
Faces say it all: Gummi's in various stages of sadness, Kiddi's in impotent anger as they both struggle to adjust to the wholesale loss of their sheep and prized rams. In their sixties, their untamed beards, unruly hair, wrinkles and rheumy eyes flecked with yellow, stare significantly into the monochrome landscape expressing resignation, despair, anger, defiance, utter weariness and unconditional love for their sheep. The sight of Gummi sat hunched and beaten on a fence in his barn, eyes beyond focus over his flattened flock of 147 sheep lying as a lifeless white rug beneath his feet, all of which he shot himself as a final act of love, segues into the sight of him washing the blood off his hands in a crumbling kitchen: cracked plaster, dirty walls. His heaving, broken sobbing is heartbreaking.
The brothers react differently after the cull. Gummi hoards a secret and Kiddi gets drunk collapsing more than once in the frozen snow, needing to be defrosted in Gummi's bath. Memorably, Gummi once delivered him to Accident and Emergency in the bucket of his bulldozer, dumping him on the steps of Casualty then driving remorselessly away. This is one of the few moments of grim humour in what is a relentless saga of man's losing battle against the might of nature.
There is an overwhelming sense in Rams of man being the most insignificant creature in this austere and lonely landscape of snow and ice; his futile efforts to control the environment making little impact as nature sports with blizzards, daily barricading man into his flimsy home with banks of snow, freezes the rivers, takes his flocks and locks mankind into a perpetual gloom, darkness and depression for the majority of the year.
The finale is dramatic and poignant, bringing the polar opposites, Gummi and Kiddi together in a joint act of defiance, not only against the ministry but against the violent winter storm that lays waste the mountains around their farms. It is a defiant act of two brothers united at last in extremity against the power of both natural and human forces, enjoined by love and brotherhood, which leaves them cocooned in a womb-like snow hole, as connected as twin foetuses in mutual symbiosis - a fitting end to this most modern of Icelandic sagas.
Director Grímur Hákonarson received international acclaim with his short film Wrestling which premiered at Locarno Film Festival in 2007 and went on to win 25 prizes around the world. Rams, winner of the prestigious ‘Un Certain Regard’ at Cannes and Iceland’s official entry for the 2016 Oscars, is his second feature film.
Rams is now showing at FACT - click here to book tickets.