Rams (2015) is a fierce and laconic parable made in Iceland and directed by Grimur Hakanarson. The film's title names both of its subjects: the husbandry of sheep in a remote valley in northern Iceland and the conflict between two brothers, huge bearded men who look like the animals they tend and who have not spoken to one another in forty years. The picture has a peculiar appeal and, when I saw the movie in Edina, the theater was half full, a surprisingly large audience for a film on this daunting subject matter. But, of course, domestic animals have played an enormous part in human evolution and, in my view, most people experience, albeit unconsciously, a gaping absence in their lives once occupied by the care and husbandry of the beasts that have been our constant companions for, at least, 15,000 years. As children learn the noises that domestic animals make -- the bark of the dog and the crow of the chicken, the pigs oink and the cow's moo -- their brains are educated in a particular way that makes intuitive sense even though today most urban children may never see any of those animals in their ancient economy with human beings: animals, and the domestic ones in particular, are "good to think with" to use Claude Levi-Strauss' phrase. Furthermore, there is something about the shape of domestic animals, the cow's comforting bulk, the rooster's strut, the strangely vehement curiosity of piglets or the dog's wagging tail, that calms the mind -- I think most people simply like the way that domestic animals look, their appearance stirs immemorial feelings of well-being and prosperity. Accordingly, the big, statuesque sheep that are central to Rams, their stubborn balkiness, the hard, marmoreal heads of the rams and the profuse curtains of dirty wool falling from their flanks, the sounds that they make, and the way that the animals flock together or, even, jump up to mount one another's shoulders as they pass through a tight sheepfold -- these images, and their associated sounds, have an intrinsic relationship to what it means to be human; they stir in us inarticulate and primordial emotions, particularly when we see the sheep posed against the picturesque and spectacularly barren highlands of the Icelandic moors -- this is the ancient territory of the shepherd, a primordial aspect of the human soul.
Rams takes place in a valley that is the home of an ancient stock of sheep, the Bolstadur flock. The valley is a place where people have the heads of famous rams mounted over their hearths and where the local livestock association meetings begin with the recitation of elaborately rhymed poems about the sheep as the "saviors of the people." The film begins with a competition in which the two brothers participate -- this year, Gummi's sheep lose to Kiddi's animals, a loss measured, as one character notes, by a few ounces of additional muscle mass in the shoulder's of Kiddi's ram. An obscure quarrel has divided the two brothers who live side-by-side, their individual pastures marked by carefully maintained wire fences -- as it happens, Gummi is the older brother and, apparently, the entire tract of the valley that they both occupy is titled in his name. The two men look like (respectively) thinner and fatter versions of Santa Claus -- they are bachelors: Gummi remarks that Kiddi once was interested in women but scared them all away; Gummi doesn't seem to have developed the taste for human females at all. The brothers communicate by writing notes to one another delivered by a kind of black border collie, an alarmingly alert and useful animal that is a familiar to the two men and seems owned in common. Gummi notices that there is something wrong with Kiddi's prize animals. It turns out that the animals have scrapie, a prion disease, the highly infectious spongiform encephalopathy that afflicts sheep. The government decrees that all the animals in the valley have to be slaughtered to keep the deadly disease from spreading. Kiddi reacts explosively -- he uses his shot gun to blast out Gummi's windows for spreading the news of the infection. Gummi is more cunning. He selects the best of the ewes from his flock, hides them in the basement with his own prize ram, Graupur, and, then, weeping kills the rest of his sheep (147 of them) with his own pistol. The people in the valley don't know what to do -- indeed, an important theme of the movie is no one can survive the endless Icelandic winter without the vital distraction of caring for their livestock and, without the sheep, the people have nothing to do: many of them abandon the valley and Kiddi drinks himself into oblivion -- twice he has to be saved from hypothermia when he falls down in the snow outdoors dead drunk. The brothers' mutual hatred has enforced upon them a weird kind of intimacy. When a government employee figures out that Gummi is harboring a dozen ewes and a ram in his cellar, the ancient feud ends instantly -- the two men must cooperate to save the last of the famous Bolstadur sheep. They drive the animals into the frozen highlands, riding on an ATV with Gummi's arms wrapped around Kiddi in a tight embrace. The men encounter a savage blizzard and the film ends enigmatically in a shallow icy grave, a kind of womb in the ice into which the two brothers, both of them naked as newborns, have retreated. The film is uncompromising and its ending, probably the only way that the movie could have concluded, will probably appall and upset most people. The reason for the brother's deadly feud is never explained and the film is stark with images of vast treeless landscapes, barren barnyards, obsessively neat and hygienic interiors almost devoid of any sign of human habitation (the brothers' essentially identical farmsteads), and dark, gloomy sheepfolds. There are few close-ups and parts of the film are intentionally edited to confuse us -- when we see Gummi cutting up wood, the film lingers on his craftsmanlike gestures but we have no idea what he is doing. (Only later do we learn that he has built sheep pens in his basement). The director is as taciturn as his principal characters -- we don't know what or how his character's think and their motivations are stripped down to primal impulses, mostly the need to protect the ancestral sheep. This is a minor movie but one that is intensely felt and, therefore, a picture that I predict will be memorable to those who see it. Certainly, as I think about the film, it has a peculiar resonance in my imagination.