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In 'Rams,' 2 Icelandic Brothers Tend Troubles Of Flock And Family

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.

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 beforeRams, 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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.