In northern Iceland where distractions are few, there is time enough to refine feuds to a fine art. And so it is with brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), the metaphorical rams of RAMS, whose 40-year feud has been fueled by living side by side for all that time on the sheep ranch where they grew up. They have not spoken in all that time, sending notes back and forth via the ranch dog. Gummi is the patient, long-suffering one, Kiddi is the one who, when necessary, gestures with an economic contempt, or puts a rock through Gummi’s window.
This is the land of sheep, where the inhabitants recite epic poems about their ovine stock, and the prize for best ram has the solemnity and import of an Olympic event. The bucolic peace, aside from the brothers, and timelessness of this valley nestled amid looming mountains is shattered when an outbreak of scrapie occurs. This fatal disease that attacks the spine and brain of the sheep has no cure, and, worse, requires that all the animals in the valley be slaughtered, their pens disinfected, and no new stock brought in for two years. It’s not just a way of life that’s being put on hold, it’s the raison d’être of this community. It’s also a breaking point for the brothers, whose own issues are no longer a private matter when both of them refuse to cooperate, but in entirely different ways. One balks at outside interference, the other pretends to go along, secreting his most beloved ram and a few ewes into his basement.
This is a film of understatement. It is through Gummi’s eloquent silence, and even more eloquent appearance, that the emotional tension and relief find their expression. There is no need to show us the actual slaughter of his sheep, there is the way he mournfully embraces one before putting on the protective gear and picking up a gun, and the way he soaks wordlessly in his bathtub afterwards, staring into space. That he is replaying what he has just done in his mind’s eye is palpable, as is the hopeless grief that, like in Browning’s poem of the same name, is passionless. The way he cheers his ram on during breeding season in the basement, a few words of encouragement are nothing to the light in his eyes and the subtle excitement of his body language that this rare breed will survive the death sentence that had been passed on it. The conflicted emotions, and the film’s sly sense of measured absurdity about the feud, when his brother is brought to his doorstep after having fallen asleep in a ditch and almost freezing to death, only to awake and stumble naked through Gummi’s home insensate and belligerent. It makes for a film where small moments have large impact, and a radio’s on or off position can turn the world upside down.
RAMS is a suspenseful character study of two brothers, but that emotional landscape is as large and as wild as the physical landscape in which they are shown, just as integral, and just as indelible.