News & Notes
Two neighbors – brothers, estranged for decades, communicating only through notes couriered by collie – find themselves on the same side of a dilemma when the possibility of disease threatens not only their livestock, but their entire way of life in Grímur Hákonarson’s tale of a small shepherding community in rural Iceland. Suffused with droll wit and amusing idiosyncrasy, featuring stunning cinematography that makes full use of the landscape’s panoramic splendor as well as the country’s wintry temper, the film presents an unsentimental but emotionally charged story that, while evoking classic and weighty themes of tradition, modernity, familial bonds, and pride, never loses sight of the very human natures at the heart of the yarn.
The director, whose short but impressive career to date has featured award-winning short films, several documentaries, and one previous feature, has said the inspiration for the story came both from the time during his childhood spent in the Icelandic countryside as well as from his father’s experiences working for the Ministry of Agriculture. The catalyst of the story – the appearance of scrapie (a fatal, degenerative disease that afflicts the nervous system of sheep and goats, akin to BSE, aka “mad cow disease”) – is a potentially devastating development, as the only remedy involves the wholesale slaughter of all the livestock, not only for the infected farm but for all the neighboring flocks as well. “One of the hardest things my father ever had to face in his professional life,” Hákonarson said, “was making decisions about whether certain livestock should be slaughtered – or not – in the event of an outbreak of disease.”
Hákonarson, like many of the great Nordic filmmakers, deftly balances the tone throughout the film as it shifts effortlessly between roiling tensions, contemplative meditations, deadpan humor, and unexpected bursts of action. He’s aided immensely in this effort by his uniformly engaging cast – both human and animal alike. “Some of my fondest memories of the film, from the pre-production period, were the auditions we held for the sheep,” the director states in the film’s press notes. “If ever they decide to give awards to animal actors in films, I am certain that our sheep are among the most deserving, and that they will go home with a few statues.”
His human cast proves equally adept, particularly the leads, Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson, who inhabit their roles so thoroughly and who imbue so much depth to their nearly wordless relationship that it would be easy to believe the actors and characters were one and the same. This is no accident – both men, well known and lauded actors in Iceland, have strong ties to the land. The casting of Sigurjónsson, who grew up on a farm, is particularly fitting. According to The Reykjavík Grapevine, “In 1980, Sigurður Sigurjónsson starred in the first production of the Icelandic Film Fund, an adaptation of Indriði Þorsteinsson’s novel ‘Land and Sons’—he played a farmer in North Iceland who sells the family farm and moves to the city. His career comes full circle in ‘Rams’, a story of a man’s two sons sticking it out on the same land.”
Ever since picking up the coveted Un Certain Regard award at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, Rams has been enjoying a successful run on the festival circuit. Given the award for Best Feature Film at both the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, Rams also screened at Telluride and Toronto and will soon be featured in next month’s Sundance Film Festival. The film is Iceland’s official entry to this year’s Oscar competition.
The Burlington Film Society screening of Rams this month, presented by Main Street Landing and co-sponsored by Shelburne Farms, will be the Vermont premiere of the film. Come early to enjoy some cheese and cider – seasonally and cinematically appropriate appetizers before the viewing!
-Seth Jarvis, 12/10/15