Inextricable bond between shepherd and flock: A modern Icelandic tragicomic film

Icelandic director Grímur Hákonarson has a small hit on his hands in his new film Rams, starring two of his country’s leading stage actors, Theodor Júlíusson in the role of Kiddi, and Sigurour Sigurjónsson as his younger brother Gummi.

The island country in the North Atlantic claims the northernmost national capital city, Reykjavík, at 64 degrees north. But the city is never mentioned. Rams is set in a rural valley, with the modern conveniences and social services one might expect from an advanced social welfare state, but the main occupation – preoccupation may be the better word – is the local sheepherding industry.

Hákonarson has not made a documentary, but the narrow focus on the lives of these country people almost makes it so. We see how an old employment has kept the population going, although again, there is little of the greater world beyond. We don’t really know what happens with these sheep: Are they raised for their wool, their meat? Both? For internal consumption? For the world market? Through good times and bad, strong communitarian principles have kept this important, historic economic sector from disappearing. It’s considered part of the national patrimony.

We do learn that indeed there have been some bad times, when the dreaded sheep disease scrapie has infected the flocks. (It was introduced from Britain in the 19th century.) When this catastrophic contagion breaks out every few years, attacking the animals’ brains and spinal cords, there is really nothing else to do but slaughter the whole valley’s sheep, destroy stacks of hay and anything that might harbor the scrapie mites. And then meticulously disinfect everything left standing. One unconsolable community member, given the news, asks, “Why not just take us too?” Government agencies are strict in their protocol, appropriate for any infectious disease, which the populace simply has to follow, like it or not, aware that their own future depends on full eradication.

A snippet of an Icelandic poem is recited at a Búdardalur village awards gathering, about the age-old co-dependency of sheep and man in this part of the world. It’s a good reminder of that rimy tradition of epic poetry about this isolated culture going back many centuries since the Norse first settled there well over a millennium ago. Because of the great distance from other cultural influences, and additionally owing to its own largely rural speakers, the Icelandic language has remained remarkably consistent for longer than just about any other European language. People there can trace their ancestry thanks to record-keeping from the very beginning of Icelandic civilization.

It’s not hard to understand why a people with so little productive activity to engage in for long winter months, except working to keep their sheep alive, would be drawn to epic sagas of the mist-shrouded past. Rams is itself a kind of Icelandic saga, albeit a modern one, with ancient roots in well-manured soil: The struggle of both humans and animals to survive in unforgiving nature, pestilence of biblical proportions, brothers who have not spoken for 40 years although they live in adjacent houses on the same old family property, sacred promises to dying parents, old scores never settled.

This is the same forbidding landscape that yielded up the epic novel Independent People by Halldór Laxness, the only Nobel Prize laureate (in 1955) from this small country. This novel, likewise set in the backward hinterland, revolves around the slow process of tenant farmers gradually buying their way out of an indigenous form of feudalism that dominated Icelandic society for centuries. In 1953 Laxness was awarded the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Council Literary Prize.

It’s ironic that the two principal characters in Rams, so obsessed with breeding and the survival of their unique, award-winning stock from the Búdardalur valley, are themselves seemingly disinterested in perpetuating their own DNA. Neither has married nor has offspring.

One could easily enough interpret Rams metaphorically as a stand-in for the whole world – threatened on the one hand by ecological disaster, yet on the other, stymied by ignorance, greed and tribalism from saving itself.

The film is described in some of the publicity as a comedy, but it is so only in the wisest, darkest and most contemplative appreciation of “the human comedy” – which is as often as not a comforting euphemism for the human tragedy. Be prepared at best for a few sad, knowing chuckles at the foibles that beset our all too proud species. The film has won a number of film festival awards, including “Un Certain Regard” (honorable mention) at Cannes.

The enigmatic ending leaves us not really knowing who will survive, man or sheep? Maybe both. Maybe neither. In any possible outcome, redemption does not come cheap.

Director: Grímur Hákonarson
1 hour, 33 minutes
An Icelandic-Danish production, 2015

Photo: Cohen Media Group


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.