Hrútar (Rams) was released last month at the Cannes Film Festival to critical acclaim, winning its creators the Prix Un Certain Regard, a category created in 1998 to reward and encourage up-and-coming film makers.
As with many Icelandic films, it’s difficult to place Hrútar in any one genre. Director Grímur Hákonarson uses every element one might encounter in life to weave a story that feels realistic, primarily because it isn’t constructed as a story, but rather as a clip from someone’s life.
At times it’s funny, and at others sad, touching, or even monotonous. Grímur doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable, but neither does he add gratuitous scenes for the single purpose of making the viewer uneasy. And even though characters are shown in their most vulnerable states, it is never done to demean them, or to allow the viewer to feel superior.
The basic premise of the film is the effect a scrapie infestation has on the inhabitants of a rural community of sheep farmers, and in particular, on the strained relationship of two brothers. Scrapie is an incurable ovine disease greatly feared by Icelandic farmers, as it requires the entire stock of sheep within the county to be cut, and new sheep cannot be safely introduced for a further three years.
Gummi, played by Sigurður Sigurjónsson, is a quiet, reserved farmer in Bárðardalur, an isolated valley in North Iceland. His brother Kiddi, portrayed by Theodór Júlíusson, lives on the same plot of land in an adjacent house, but the two haven’t spoken in decades. Both avoid other people but find great solace in the company of their sheep.
When the scrapie is discovered the valley’s sheep farmers are forced to decide how they will adapt—whether they will wait it out, turn to other kinds of farming, or abandon their agrarian life for the metropolis.
Lack of narrative and limited dialogue leave much up to interpretation, and while panning shots of scenic Icelandic nature would likely be striking to those not used to them, many Icelanders, at least myself, would not pay them particular attention. I would then imagine that the film looks quite different to foreign eyes than Icelandic ones, and that different aspects stand out based on the viewer’s personal experience and understanding of the film’s context.
While not as obviously political, Hrútar is, in some respects, reminiscent of Halldór Laxness’ epic Sjálfstætt Fólk (Independent People)—its central characters sharing with Laxness’ Bjartur í Sumarhúsum their obsessive love of sheep, fear of the foreign and absurd degree of stubbornness.
Some foreign reviewers have noted with admiration the brothers’ dogged commitment to their ancestral sheep stock. I, however, found their persistence to be reflective, not of perseverance and fortitude, but rather of the deeply-ingrained Icelandic fear of the unfamiliar.
When the farmers of the valley first discuss the possibility of scrapie, the usually withdrawn Gummi stops a younger farmer’s attempt at being positive in its tracks by invoking the ominous specter of “imported Western hormone meat.”
The local Danish-born veterinarian, played by Charlotte Bøving, who is charged with enforcing the severe scrapie laws, then represents the menace of the oppressive continental powers, and of draconian foreign-imposed rules and regulations.
This cultural element, a near paranoid fear that Icelandic sovereignty is constantly under threat, is presently expressed, for instance, through widespread support for the fierce anti-EU movement. Or Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson’s warning last summer to cook meat thoroughly or risk ingesting the behavior-changing protozoan Toxoplasma gondii—but only foreign meat, of course.
This subconscious cultural xenophobia is further highlighted by the film’s single voiceover, an off-screen news reporter discussing the scrapie epidemic in Bárðardalur. The anchor’s familiar voice (supplied by real-life news anchor Bogi Ágústsson, as is common in Icelandic films) gives a very brief summary of the situation, and then, as Gummi mournfully gazes up at the stuffed ram’s head mounted on the wall of his living room, adds that “scrapie is believed to have been brought to Iceland by a British ram around the turn of the 20th century.”
That is not to say that the film is in any way a scathing or unsympathetic portrayal of Icelandic farmers, but rather an intimate, and ultimately introspective, portrait of one man’s struggle to cope with change.
Emilía Sara Ólafsdóttir Kaaber — emilia(at)icelandreview.com