Winter of Discontent

A Commentary & Review of RAMS
By John Bennison,
Mountain Shadow Director

RAMS - a film by Grímur Hákonarson
World Premiere · Cannes International Film Festival 2015 – Winner Un Certain Regard • 93 minutes - Rated R- Iceland – Icelandic, with English subtitles • Note: This film was Mountain Shadow's selection for March, 2016

“A sad tale’s best for winter … There was a man.”
Wm. Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Act II, Scene 1

Before the opening title to the film, we see a sweeping, stony green and sparse Icelandic countryside. Two farmhouses, inhabited by two estranged brothers, stand a stone’s throw apart; separated only by a barbed wire fence and a thousand miles of jealousy, rivalry and resentment that has fueled a bitter feud for an unremembered number of years.

The bonds of affection held by Gummi and Kiddi Bolstadar are quickly evident, however; and equally spent on their wooly flock and the prize sheep they’ll enter in the annual village contest. As the hamlet’s inhabitants gather to judge and then announce the prizes, a spokesman first rises to recite a solemn soliloquy. As the verses are read, the villagers listen in rapt attention; as heads nod in appreciative agreement.

For the viewer, the lines can be taken as the foreboding prologue to a folk tale as grand and stately as anything Shakespeare might have borrowed.

“In this nation none has played a larger role,
and survived through ice and fire.
Whatever happens,
resistant and tough for 1,000 years
mankind’s savior and friend.
All year round in joy and disagreement,
the sheep intertwines
with the farmer’s work and being.
Bright was the outlook when our sheep felt fine. 
Black were the nights with the flock in decline.”

Soon the blackest of nights descends upon valley, as Gummi’s grim discovery of an incurable sheep disease leads to the mandatory slaughter of all the stock. 

As Kiddi finally confronts his brother after decades of bitter silence, he wrestles him to the ground. Pressing Gummi’s face into the dung and the hay on the barn floor, he shouts in his ear, “Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve wiped out the Bolstadar stock. This is going to be a hell of a winter!  No sheep. Just the two of us.”

How they will cope, and what will become of the two brothers, is the bitter winter’s tale that will unfold. For soon those misdirected recriminations will give way to a secret Gummi will keep and hide from everyone as long as he can, for the long winter days that follow.

If there are comic elements to this tale, you’ll have to look for subtle humor.  There’s Gummi’s plan to celebrate the holiday with an evening dinner party for one; until his brother’s drunk and nearly frozen body is found outside, and Gummi has to thaw him out in his own bathtub.

The next time Kiddi is found drunk and half-frozen, Gummi has to use a skip loader to dump him at the doorsteps of the hospital in town. This is dark humor at its best; where one is not sure whether to laugh, or wince, or both.  But when Kiddi discovers his brother’s darkest mischief, they have to not only decide whether they’re willing to survive the the winter together, but how.

In the end, and as the two are faced with the direst of circumstances, the viewer’s question what becomes of them is left unanswered and frozen in time.

This is the final gift to be found in this storyteller’s craft; as the two men, entombed by nothing more than flesh and blood, are left to discover if it is enough.  jb