In 'Rams,' Two Icelandic Brothers Tend Troubles Of Flock And Family

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Tensions flare when a local "best ram" competition results in a virtual tie, with Gummi's ram taking second place and Kiddi's taking first. (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)
Tensions flare when a local "best ram" competition results in a virtual tie, with Gummi's ram taking second place and Kiddi's taking first. (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

The new movie, Rams, has absolutely nothing to do with Peyton Manning. It's a story from Iceland that involves sheep, snow, a herd-afflicting virus called scrapie, and sufficient sibling rivalry to power a Greek tragedy.

We're introduced to sheep-herding brothers Gummi and Kiddi Bodvarsson on their neighboring farms in a remote Icelandic valley. Their barns are less than 100 yards apart. Their flocks are bred from the same, generations-old stock. And while tending them, the 60-something brothers are all but indistinguishable, with shaggy, nearly identical gray-and-brown beards and thick, nearly identical gray-and-brown sweaters.

Cut from the same cloth, you might say, except that Gummi and Kiddi have not spoken to each other for four decades. The film doesn't explain why, it just shows the result: two men, both popular with their neighbors, but with the understanding that they must be dealt with separately.

So when a local "best ram" competition ends in a virtual tie, and Gummi's ram takes second place, while Kiddi's takes first, there is some hard feeling. And when Gummi voices suspicions a few days later that his brother's winning ram has "scrapie" — an incurable brain-attacking virus that's the sheep equivalent of mad-cow disease — there is harder feeling that's expressed with a rifle shot through a window in the middle of the night.

Up to this point, director Grímur Hákonarson has been playing quite a bit of the sibling rivalry side of the story for comedy. When communication between brothers is absolutely necessary, they send insulting notes to each other via sheep-herding dog, and there are running jokes — Kiddi forever being rescued in a drunken stupor from a snowbank, Gummi being interrupted every time he starts to relax in a bath.

But things turn darker when it turns out Gummi is right. The local vet confirms that Kiddi's ram is, indeed, infected, and because the virus is both contagious and fatal, the authorities decree that all the sheep in both their herds — in fact, all the sheep in the valley — must be slaughtered.

This is a tragedy for these men. They love their herds, and come up with differently sneaky ways to try to avoid that edict, one of which provides the film with a conclusion that might have been imported from norse legend.

Director Hákonarson, who has mostly made documentaries before Rams, is working with two of Iceland's most distinguished actors here — Sigurdur Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson — who are, ironically, so persuasive as sheep-herders it feels at times as if Rams is, itself, a documentary rather than a spare, simply-shot drama.

A drama that offers a portrait of dedication and alienation, as well as of an unspoken, honored-entirely-in-the-breach bond between brothers who've spent a lifetime butting heads near the top of the world.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A new movie came out this week called "Rams," and it has nothing to do with football. It's a story from Iceland which involves snow, sheep, sibling rivalry. Here's NPR Critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Sheep herding brothers Gummi and Kiddi Bodvarsson live on neighboring farms in a remote valley in Iceland. Their barns are less than 100 yards apart. Their herds are bred from the same stock, and while tending them...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAMS")

SIGUROUR SIGURJONSSON: (As Gummi, speaking Icelandic).

MONDELLO: ...The 60-something brothers are all but indistinguishable with shaggy, nearly identical gray-and-brown beards and thick, nearly identical grey-and-brown sweaters. Two peas in a pod, you might say, except that they have not spoken to each other for four decades. So when a local best ram competition ends in a virtual tie and Gummi's ram takes second-place while Kiddi's takes first...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAMS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Icelandic).

(APPLAUSE)

MONDELLO: ...There is some hard feelings. And when Gummi voices suspicions a few days later that his brother's winning ram has an incurable virus - sort of the sheep equivalent of mad cow disease - there is harder feeling, expressed at least partly nonverbally in the middle of the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAMS")

THEODOR JULIUSSON: (As Kiddi, speaking Icelandic).

MONDELLO: Up to this point, director Grimur Hakonarson has been playing quite a bit of this for comedy, but things turn darker when it turns out Gummi is right. The local vet confirms that Kiddi's ram is infected. And because the virus is both contagious and fatal, the authorities decree that all of the sheep in both of their herds - in fact, all of the sheep in the valley - must be slaughtered. This is a tragedy for these men. They love their herds and come up with differently sneaky ways to try to avoid that edict. One of those ways provides the film with a conclusion that might have been imported from Norse legend. The director, who has mostly made documentaries before "Rams," is working with two of Iceland's most distinguished actors here - actors who are ironically so persuasive as sheepherders, it feels at times as if "Rams" is itself a documentary rather than a spare, simply-shot drama, a drama that offers a portrait of dedication and alienation and of an unspoken, honored-entirely-in-the-breach bond by brothers who've spent a lifetime butting heads near the top of the world. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.