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This strange Icelandic comedy never does what you expect.
By Sarah Ward
April 09, 2016
By Sarah Ward
April 09, 2016

It's a tale as old as time: feuding siblings, an envy-fuelled rivalry, and an attempt to survive in harsh conditions. All three elements drive Icelandic effort Rams, as do the titular animals. Yet there's little about this perceptive examination of the bonds of blood, the struggles of farming life, and the importance of finding hope and humour in even the bleakest of circumstances, that feels routine or overly familiar.

Perhaps focusing on the woolly creature's importance to rural townships helps, with the feature's narrative following brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) as they operate neighbouring sheep farms. Perhaps the measured pace, meticulous detail and observational atmosphere does as well, all stemming from writer/director Grímur Hákonarson's documentary background.

Indeed, though Rams is a work of fiction, in exploring the hardships of working the land it seems ripped straight from reality. After entering their prized beasts into an annual competition, Kiddi emerges victorious, but a bitter Gummi is convinced that something is awry. Secretly inspecting the winning critter, he spies signs of a highly contagious disease that could wipe out Kiddi's flock, infect his own and cripple the entire village's livelihood. The duo hasn't spoken in four decades, exchanging messages via sheepdog to communicate when needed. However only by working together can they hope to save their animals and their community.

While compromise might be called for within the story, as the bickering brothers are forced to unite to fight a shared cause, the movie itself prefer to dwell upon contrasts rather than find common ground. Hákonarson doesn't try to soften the difficulties he depicts, even when he's giving them the quirky comic treatment. Instead, he endeavours to present both tough times and happy moments, and demonstrate the importance of taking the good with the bad.

Accordingly, Rams becomes not just an empathetic tale of striving to triumph over adversity, but an intricate exercise in balance. The film shows amusing attempts to outwit the agricultural authorities one minute, and the fearsome impact of the unforgiving Icelandic environment the next. But it never lets the former overpower the latter or vice versa. Of course, when a feature revolves around squabbling siblings, more than a bit of to-ing and fro-ing is to be expected. What makes the film soar isn't its determination to delve into opposing sides, but the way in which it embodies those underlying divides in everything from its visuals to its performances.

Cue images that jump between vast sights and intimate interiors, and portrayals that similarly pit bold and subtle traits against each other. In Hákonarson's hands, the many juxtapositions prove not just effective in conveying the story, but insightful as well. Here, the extremes of existence exist as part of a continuum, constantly coming into conflict and yet still managing to coexist. That's the core of Rams, and the secret to making a film feel both immediate and timeless.

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