At its heart, director Grímur Hákonarson’s “Rams” is a sentimental tale of juxtaposition and sheep. Watching the film is like stepping into a fairy tale — unorthodox and cautionary as it may be. The words that are spoken during the film are lyrical and soft, as use of the native Icelandic language provides a nostalgic element to a story about traditional living and its modern disruptions.
The film introduces a secluded valley in Iceland whose inhabitants depend completely on raising sheep. The protagonist Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) is no exception. His life revolves around his flock, especially his prize ram Garpur. Gummi and his estranged brother Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) live next to each other and breed a common ancestral sheep stock, but they have not spoken in 40 years.
When a fatal disease is discovered in Kiddi’s drove, all the farmers in the valley are instructed to put down their flocks to contain the outbreak. A harrowing chain of events forces the brothers back together, and they are pressed to overcome past grudges in order to save their sheep and their lives.
Hákonarson takes full advantage of the Icelandic landscape, as seen in the film’s breathtaking shots of untouched nature. Perhaps more impressive is his ability to carry the muted colors of the land into all aspects of the film. Blues, greens and taupes fill the screen throughout, providing accent to Gummi’s routines, whether he’s solving a puzzle or taking care of his sheep. Overall, the film is brisk and at moments frigid, but its balance of lights and darks and dreamlike atmosphere give it continuity.
Overall, “Rams” calls into question the definition of family. Because the sheep in the film greatly outnumber the people, the animals are more than a mere means of living, as seen in Gummi’s clear affection for his animals. By naming them, bathing them, and simply sitting with his herd, Gummi shows that he is closer to his sheep than to his brutish brother who only seems to be able to drink and shoot.
The genre of “Rams” falls under no single category. It is a complex story built within the seemingly simple narrative of farming. In this rustic environment, relationships are put to the test and the resilience of familial bonds — both animal and human — is on full display. It’s beautiful realism, at its best.
“Rams” won the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and received the Best Narrative Film award at the Telluride, Toronto and the Hamptons film festivals. Most recently, it was shown at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
“Rams” will open in New York at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Film Forum on Wednesday, Feb. 3 with a national rollout to follow.
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