Three winter weeks, two films with men in peril and snow on their beards. Rams, set in contemporary Iceland and dealing with the mostly humdrum life of shepherds is a world away from The Revenant’s big-scale, highly charged melodrama, but in the end they’re both about humans in landscapes and family dynamics. Here we have brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) who live right up next to each other in a small sheep-farming community but have not spoken for 40 years.
Gummi is quiet and sociable and respected in the community, but Kiddi is morose and fond of the bottle. Both live solitary lives where their sheep, and particularly their prize rams, the result of years of breeding, are the central points of their emotional as well as working lives, lovingly prepared and cossetted for the small annual sheep show. It’s here that their enmity reaches its climax. The brothers could be pugnacious rams themselves, pig-headedly hanging on to an old quarrel. The peculiarly strong relationship of farmers with their animals, also to be seen recently in Magali Pettier’s admired documentary Addicted to Sheep, set in Teesdale, is something most of us cannot really comprehend, but the strange combination of homeliness and epic struggle is illustrated by the poem recited at the show with its rolling vowels and harsh consonants sounding like an ancient saga but actually a sweet little ditty about how much the sheep mean to them. So when the deadly sheep disease Scrapie is discovered in the valley a tragic crisis is unleashed for the whole community.
There is humour in the film, and it’s a portrait of a close community, but a doomed one, as the few young people who remain are on the point of leaving, and the sheep-rearing in which such pride is taken is so vulnerable. The human pleasures and tragedies and woes are small-scale, but no less for that, while the landscape, reminiscent of the North Pennines, forms a grand and forbidding background to a story of wasted lives, where redemption, such as it is, is a bleak one.