Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 03, 2016 12:25 pm 
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Sigurður Sigurjónsson abd Theodór Júlíusson in Rams

Of men and beasts

Rams is one of those films whose real topic, you might say, is austerity. It is set in a rural part of Iceland, whose climate is somewhat harsh. It focuses on two feuding brothers, never married, who are sheep herders. They have not even spoken to each other for forty years. If that isn't austere enough for you, they are soon to be deprived of their chief love, their livelihood, and their patrimony.

At first, to the annoyance of Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), one of the rams of his older brother Kimmi (Theodór Júlíusson) -- and Kimmi is, shall we say, the black sheep -- wins a local judging. But then, as Gummi is the first to discover, some of Kimmi's sheep turn out to be infected with scrapie, a fatal and highly contagious brain disease. Local veterinary authorities quickly decide all the sheep in the valley (thus we learn it is a valley) must be slaughtered.

This is not a happy outcome, clearly. Some, with reason, nonetheless find the action of the brothers funny, or amusing, anyway (like an episode of "Doc Martin," perhaps) what with the interrupted baths, the sight of their pot-bellied (if athletic) old-man bodies; the clumsy quarreling; and particularly, a certain use of a tractor lift to deliver a drunken patient to a hospital in the snow. Hákonarson, who wrote as well as directed, has a sense of humor.

But the underlying spirit is sad and deeply sweet. Tragedy and heroic but putatively hopeless efforts to avert it lead to outcomes for the two brothers that are are touching and uncertain. The final scene, in which all that emotion and uncertainty are concentrated, is a memorable one. It echoes two other cinematic moments of lone men taking drastic steps to combat nocturnal cold that come up in the other Icelandic film Of Horses and Men and in the recent outdoor survival saga starring Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant. How much more moving and organic to the environment and the action this scene is than the ones in Of Horses and The Revenant is a key to how much more primal and human Rams is as a story and a movie. But there is a limit to how far you can go with austerity, this side of Samuel Beckett. Less is more and 140 rams can seem too large a supporting cast, though they are handsome beasts, and, to judge by Gummi, cuddly ones.

It's clear early on -- this may be amusing, but it's not risqué -- that Gummi lavishes love on his rams that might have gone to a wife, or to Kimmi. But Kimmi is the less stable, more unhappy man. He's a drunk, and we learn it was Gummi who inherited from their father the neighboring farms where the two men live -- which may have been the root cause of the feud. Perhaps the drunkenness caused the disinheriting, or vice versa. It isn't necessary to go into these details, and the movie doesn't. We understand that the feelings are deep and unspoken. As for the rams the brothers raise on both farms, they belong to an inherited ancient line that is unique and, if they are slaughtered, may be lost forever.

The director, Grímur Hákonarson, who has a strong background in documentaries and shorts, works fluently among the farmers and veterinarians and with little dialogue. The hills and valleys, pale green and later white, are a natural environment without being overemphasized. Both the principal actors are well known in Iceland but they merge wonderfully into their parts, as if they'd been laboring on these pale slopes all their own lives. With their big beards and long bodies, Sigurjónsson, who gets most of the action and dialogue, and Júlíusson, whose tragic struggle toward the end has led him to be suggested as a good one to play King Lear, easily and naturally dominate the film and make you take Gummi and Kimmi seriously, even if feuding old men are a bit comical, when they're not tragic. This is, as Mike D'Angelo said, as good a film as you'll ever see about feuding sheep herders. And likely as good as you'll ever see from Iceland. Despite its narrow focus it has authenticity and punch.

Rams/ Hrútar, 93 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2015 where it won the UIn Certain Regard prize. It has shown in over two dozen other festivals since, including Sundance 2016, where it is showing today (22 Jan.). It opened in France (as Béliers) 9 Dec. 2015, where it receoved raves (AlloCiné press rating 4/1 ), though to the director's frank disappointment, it did not make the final cut of nominees for the Best Foreign Oscars. It begins limited US theatrical release 3 Feb., running at Film Forum in New York Wednesday, Feb 3 - Tuesday, Feb 16, 12:30 , 2:30, 4:45, 7:00., 9:10. It opens at Landmark's Opera Plaza Theater in San Francisco Feb. 12.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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