A distinctive form of 'slow cinema’ devoted to stillness and contemplation has emerged in the last two decades in opposition to the quickening pace of mainstream American cinema. Now, with 'Rams', winner of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard award, Grímur Hákonarson offers us a distinctively Icelandic version of slow. It is a perfect marriage.
The birth of contemporary Icelandic cinema dates to the late 1970s when a fund was established to finance home grown film-making. The first film to benefit from this was 'Land and Sons' (1980) set in the 1930s in a remote sheep-farming community and featuring in his debut screen role Sigurdur Sigurjónsson. Thirty-five years on Sigurjónsson returns to similar territory in 'Rams'.
The 'Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies' describes slow cinema as 'characterised by minimalism, austerity, and extended duration; downplaying drama, event and action in favour of mood; and endowing the activity of viewing with a meditative or contemplative quality’ (Kuhn and Westwell, 2012). Long takes, understated modes of storytelling and an emphasis on quietude and the everyday are some of the formal characteristics of a slow aesthetic. During long takes we are invited to let our eyes wander within the frame and indulge in a more relaxed form of wide perception.
Hakonárson’s second feature film after 'Summerland' (2010) trusts the audience’s intelligence as well as its patience. The slow pace of 'Rams' may take a little time to get used to but patience will be rewarded. It shares the lugubrious charm and deadpan humour of the almost dialogue-free Italian film, 'Le Quattro Volte' (2010) about life in a remote mountain town in Southern Italy where the main inhabitants are goats.
'Rams' tells the story of Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) and his estranged brother Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjónsson). They are rival sheep breeders, well past middle-age, who live alone in two side-by-side smallholdings on a remote farm in Iceland. They have not spoken to each other for 40 years for reasons only very gradually revealed. A beautifully framed opening wide shot establishes the brothers’ close physical proximity: despite occupying a vast, empty landscape their front doors are a stone’s throw away from each other.
Such opening scenes cast the brothers’ feud in a farcical light and also establish the emotional closeness Gummi feels towards his sheep. The first words in the film are his, spoken tenderly to his favourite ewe: 'That’s a good girl, my dear Lukka’. The main sheep are listed as named characters in the end credits, having auditioned for their roles and rehearsed with their fellow humans to ensure compatibility between the players. Gummi and Kiddi enter their top rams in the community’s annual agricultural show for best sheep. Kiddi’s ram wins, setting in motion the film’s central drama.
The historical and cultural importance of sheep in Iceland is given poetic expression in a speech by the competition judge at the show: ‘In this nation none has played a greater role in our survival through ice and fire. Sheep are woven into our farmers’ work and being. Bright was the outlook when our sheep felt fine. Black were the nights when the flock was in decline’. You are challenged not to fall in love with these gorgeous, jostling, woolly creatures.
Hákonarson’s background in documentaries is apparent in his evocative depiction of a rural community populated mainly by hairy men in woolly jumpers. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen captures seasonal change from summer into stunning wintry images of snow-capped mountains and ferocious weather. Changes of season and mood are heralded by two repeated musical motifs, one played delicately on the piano of just a few melancholy notes, another more liltingly on the accordion. Scored by Atli Örvarsson, the music swells at key moments but always with respectful restraint so as not to overwhelm the sounds or silence of the land.
Set design by Bjarni Massi Sigurbjörnsson is immaculate and unforced. Lovely details convey what Screen Daily calls Gummi’s 'grubby bachelor utilitarianism’: vigorously scrubbing his best ram in his bathroom; next door an uncommented-on 1978 calendar pinned to dark 1970s wallpaper. He lavishes affection on his ovine friends and grooms them as he denies himself. His shaggy hair, bushy beard and holey woolen jumper, toenails trimmed with huge scissors in the bath, great lumps of mutton spooned from a vast tub and heated in the microwave – all mute indicators of his bachelorhood and self-neglect and witty markers of equivalence with his woolly charges.
The brothers’ rivalry plays out as a kind of grim comedy, their daily routine often shot from a distance to droll effect, bordering on slapstick. A very clever frisky collie acts as go-between, carrying messages backwards and forwards in his mouth when they must communicate, as if patiently rounding up recalcitrant sheep. The crisis that initiates this communication is not in the least comical, recalling ghastly scenes of mass slaughter of cattle in the UK epidemic of mad cow disease. Gummi suspects scrapie in the winning ram; he sounds the alarm and ministry vets descend on the valley to kill all the sheep.
Sigurjónsson’s portrayal of Gummi as a decent, gentle soul is warm and endearing, his anguish apparent in the deepening frown that creases his forehead and the grief in his eyes over his beloved dead sheep. He and Júlíusson as Kidi, the more volatile, often drunk brother, are utterly believable as men who have lived with sheep all their lives.
Escalating tension and huge stakes place the brothers’ feud in a wider, much grimmer context. Nevertheless, Hakonarson’s script and careful pacing never depart for a moment from the tale’s witty, quirky tone. In one glorious visual gag, when Kidi is found dead drunk yet again and nearly frozen to death, the long-suffering Gummi scoops him up in a tractor and dumps him at the local hospital emergency entrance.
The film’s astonishing windswept climax pulls everything together in its emotional and elemental intensity, encompassing and adding meaning to its visual gags and running jokes. You will not see it coming, says Trevor Johnston in Sight and Sound, but 'fate, circumstance and brilliant film-making deliver a final image that not only sets individual conflict within the broader realm of human brotherhood but somehow also prompts a surge of emotion from an outcome on the very tipping point of exquisite uncertainty’.
It lingers longer in the mind than any happy ending. 'Rams' is a joy and a triumph of slow cinema.