Friday, February 19, 2016

Locking horns in northern Iceland

This review was done for a film that had been scheduled to open this weekend but has since been cancelled. Still, it's an interesting film that readers might want to know about and which of course may end up in some other form of media. 

There is brotherly love, and there is brotherly hatred. In Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams, two brothers in northern Iceland live side by side and raise ancestral prized sheep. They compete against one another in contests. But the brothers, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíussn), haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years. Who knows the reason? Family passions run deep. Of course the film’s title is a metaphor. The story opens with Kiddi winning top prize in a regional sheep rearing competition to, of course, Gummi’s chagrin. Gummi, surreptitiously, checks the prized sheep and finds signs of Scrapie (BSE), a dangerous incurable disease. Authorities are contacted and all the sheep herders in the valley will have to cull their flocks. This doesn’t sit well since in this remote area sheep raising is the farmers’ only income. Moreover, the region identifies with sheep, a livestock their families have raised for generations. Nevertheless, a quarantine is imposed and the flocks are exterminated. Gummi decides to slaughter his own, an official no-no. But this way he spirts aside his prized ram, Garpur, and some ewes, out of the eyes of authorities. Meanwhile his brother shoots out a couple of windows of his house, accusing him of being a sore loser by indirectly condemning his herd to slaughter. Later, when the cull is finished, a government inspector inadvertently hears the sounds of the sheep coming from Gummi’s basement. Gummi asks Kiddi if he can hide them at his house. But the brothers realize this is a short term solution. They must spirit the small flock to the mountains where the animals can overwinter. As they drive the sheep up the mountain they encounter a blizzard. This is Hákonarson’s first feature, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes film festival. It’s a character driven story. There is limited dialogue so much of the interpersonal cues come from looks, grunts and emotional outbursts. At this Sigurjonsson and Júlíussn, two of Iceland’s leading actors, are brilliant. The actors, who in real life are urban based, also seamlessly portray rugged independent farmers. The movie’s story is more about the brothers’ relationship than the moral imperatives of destroying diseased livestock. The film doesn’t answer the ethical question of whether what the brothers are doing is right. Presumably it’s depicting its characters just the way they are – hardly heroes in their obstinacy and anti-authoritarianism – but yet capable, on some level, of human connection.

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