Entertainment & Arts

Sheepish success of Icelandic Rams movie

Rams Image copyright Soda Pictures
Image caption In Rams estranged brothers Gummi and Kiddi are forced to unite to try to save their farming industry after disease breaks out

Take two brothers who haven't spoken in four decades and an outbreak of scrapie amongst their prize-winning herd of sheep, and apparently, you have the ingredients for one of the most successful Nordic films to date - Rams, by Icelandic film-maker Grimur Hakonarson.

The tale of elderly brothers Gummi and Kiddi, played by Sigurdur Sigurjonsson and Theodor Julisson, who farm next door to each other in a bleak Icelandic landscape, is Hakonarson's second feature film, but it won the prestigious Un Certain Regard prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and has gone on to be released in more than 40 countries.

With no women in their lives, and no one for company apart from their sheep, the estranged brothers send any necessary messages to each other via their sheepdog - or occasionally, a shotgun.

But when the lethal disease scrapie breaks out in their valley, all herds are culled. It's effectively a death sentence for the famers too, leaving Gummi and Kiddi to save their industry from extinction.

With a plotline like this, and two lead actors that trade magazine Variety describes as "King Lear-like", many international audiences have been surprised to find Rams described as comedy, but that, according to Hakonarson, comes down to cultural nuances.

Image copyright Soda Pictures
Image caption Rams is essentially a comedy born of a ridiculous but tragic situation, says the film's director

"It's a very Icelandic sense of humour," he explains. "If you think of the old Icelandic sagas, describing battle and death, we find some of these descriptions funny. It's a very bleak sense of humour, but we come from the far north, without much light, and depression is intrinsic to our humour.

"Perhaps it's more accurate to describe Rams as a tragi-comedy. There's a cocktail of drama and comedy in the script that is very subtle, and the comedy comes from the ridiculousness of the situation. It's absurd that elderly men who live next door to each other have to rely on a dog to pass messages, it's sad and funny at the same time."

Hakonarson, 39, grew up in rural Iceland, and took a job on a sheep farm as a teenager, which would eventually give him the idea for Rams.

"I´ve experienced the life of the sheep farmer and I know people who have a great passion for sheep," he says.

"I know this may sound humorous to you, but there seems to be a strong connection between men and sheep in Iceland, stronger than other animals. Not only because of historical and cultural reasons, people seem to get emotionally more attached to their sheep.

"I wanted to do a film about this connection; about the relationship between farmers and their sheep. Many farmers I know are bachelors; they live alone. The sheep become their family and best friends. The ties become stronger.

Image copyright Soda Pictures
Image caption The impressive landscape in the film has prompted a lot of audience reaction, says the director

"Then I heard a story of two brothers who lived next to each other and didn't speak for 40 years. I think however, this was over a woman, but I found that story interesting and tragi-comical and maybe a bit Icelandic.

"Many Icelanders are stubborn and very independent. So I combined these two ideas into a script."

While TV shows from the Nordic countries - Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden - have shown across the world, the most high-profile, including Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge, originated in Denmark.

Feature films from the five countries have found it harder to reach an international audience; the most successful, apart from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, is 2012's Headhunters from Norway, an adaptation of a Jo Nesbo thriller, and 2014's The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window, again an adaptation of a bestseller.

Iceland's last Oscar nomination was in 1991, for Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's Children of Nature. While Rams, or Hrutar in its original language, did not make the final Academy Awards shortlist, it's one of the most commercially successful films yet to come from the Nordic countries, and Iceland's largest international film to date in terms of box office - something Hakonarson is finding hard to grasp.

Image copyright Soda Pictures
Image caption Iceland specialises in making films with 'simple and humanistic' stories to which all nationalities can relate, says Rams director Grimur Hakonarson

"We made this film for under two million euros and now we've been negotiating for release in China," he says. "It's very rare for a film to be both successful at home and abroad - our culture usually doesn't travel. It's also rare for our films to be both a critical and commercial success.

"In Iceland, we don't have much money to make films. Therefore we make rather simple and humanistic stories. We can't afford to make period movies either. I'm very happy that a film about sheep farmers who don't talk to each other can be so successful abroad. We can't compete with Hollywood in genre films, it's better for us to make films like Rams.

"What has startled me the most is the questions about the landscape from international audiences, which is very much another character in the film. Urban audiences in particular are very keen to experience it for themselves - I'm starting to feel like an ambassador of the Icelandic tourist board."

With a 100% rating on movie critic site Rotten Tomatoes, Rams has been described as "a far from woolly tale" with "bone dry humour". But its director thinks that despite the strangeness of the volcanic surroundings and of the story itself, what really draws audiences is a more familiar theme.

"There's a sense of loneliness and isolation that you can get even if you live in the middle of a town," he says. "The conflict between the brothers affects everyone, no matter where they live, because everyone has conflicts within close family. The story is universal."

Rams is released in the UK on 5 February.

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