Icelandic saga told with tough love and a light touch

Rams. Written and directed by Grimur Hakonarson. Starring Sigurdur Sigurjonsson and Theodor Juliusson. Rating 8 (out of 10)

Two brothers, two farms, and a shared road linking both. But the brothers haven't shared a word in 40 years.

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It's an intriguing premise, brought forth by writerdirector Grumur Hakonarson, especially given the isolated Icelandic valley in which the bachelor brothers reside. When the men must communicate, they use a sheepdog to pass notes from one to the other. Did they row over a woman? Economics? Or was it one of the yearly town competitions for Best Ram that started the feud?

After such a competition, Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) leaves the party early in a huff, but not before sensing that something isn't quite right with his brother Kiddi's (Theodor Juliusson) prized ram. In a panic, Gummi goes home and bathes his own ram in the bathtub - a brilliant image - fearing infection.

This is a land that lives and dies by its herds, where they recite poetry dedicated to sheep, and where a man like Gummi can blend seamlessly into the landscape in a single movement. The divide between sheep and man is often blurred: Gummi uses shears to trim his toenails and even looks like a ram, what with that woolly mane that blends into his Icelandic sweater.

It is determined that Kiddi's ram has scrapie, a disease imported from Britain in the late 1800s that affects the brain and spinal cord of the sheep. The only solution is a complete sheep kill in the valley, and two years with no sheep at all. Farmers have to destroy all the hay, burn all their tools. "No sheep, just the two of us," says a raging drunk Kiddi. "It's going to be one hell of a winter."

The brothers react entirely differently to the news. Kiddi rebels against the authorities and drinks, but mostly blames Gummi, who first raised the alarm. Kind-eyed Gummi seems to follow the veterinarian's instructions and, in a poignant scene, hugs and says goodbye to each member of his flock before killing them.

"It's f***ing boring" notes a neighbour farmer, now that the hard-working people in the valley have no flocks to attend to. Some farmers fight bankruptcy, a few move. But Gummi has a secret.

It's a darkly comic scenario, with moments of heartbreak and hard-headed pragmatism. Shot in natural light, early light, and half light by Sturla Brandth Grovlen, Iceland's stark beauty becomes more fearsome as winter settles in, while the life and lodgings of the brothers look like they haven't changed in a generation or more.

Hakonarson employs a light touch; the proceedings never veer into the maudlin or oversentimental. And anchoring this humanist drama are fine performances by veteran actors Sigurjonsson and Juliusson, playing two stubborn, ram-headed old men who refuse to give up the fight.

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