It was during my undergraduate school years that I heard about scrapie for the first time. Due to its elusive origin of infection somehow highly resistant to common disinfection methods, this neurodegenerative disease observed from sheep and goats had been shrouded in mystery for many years, and it was only after Stanley B. Prusiner’s study in 1982, which would garner him a Nobel Prize in 1997, that scientists came to confirm and conclude that the cause of not only scrapie and but also other notable similar human and animal neurodegenerative diseases such as ‘mad cow disease’ or Alzheimer’s disease is not bacteria or virus but abnormal protein particles which can be transmitted between individuals and then amplified in body with slow but devastating neurodegenerative effects.
While it initially attracted my old scientific curiosity which is incidentally associated with my current postdoctoral research, there are also other things to like in small, modest Icelandic film “Rams”, which was chosen as the Icelandic entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards. The movie takes its time as establishing the background along a simple plot revolving around one old love/hate relationship, and you may be surprised by how it effortlessly lets its plot and characters roll with small, intimate moments of humor and drama until it arrives at an unexpected dramatic point.
The background of the movie is a remote valley region located somewhere in the northern rural region of Iceland. Many of its residents have earned their living through sheep farming, and we see a number of local sheep farmers gathering for a regional competition. As they stand in row with their best rams, the rams are carefully and thoroughly evaluated by a local veterinarian for deciding on which is the best one among them, and the winner is subsequently announced in front of the competitors and others.
While his neighbors/friends are enjoying the event regardless of the final result, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), a middle-aged bachelor who has devoted himself to sheep farming for many years like most of his fellow sheep farmers, does not look that happy to see that his ram receives the second prize instead of the first prize, which goes to none other than the one belonging to Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), his estranged brother who has lived right next to Gummi’s farm residence. For some private reason, they have not spoken with each other at all for 40 years, and the only connection between them besides sheep farming is Kiddi’s sheepdog, which sometimes functions as an intermediary between these two grumpy old bachelors.
When Gummi later tells one of his neighbors about the possibility of scrapie in Kiddi’s farm, he seems to be motivated by the personal grudge toward his brother at first. However, as subtly implied by a few earlier scenes, he is really concerned about the worst possible situation, and, unfortunately, it turns out he is right about that. Every sheep farmer in the valley region is soon notified that they must slaughter and bury every sheep they have, and they all devastated by this sudden catastrophe.
Calmly observing the consequent devastation further accentuated by the cold, harsh weather of winter days, the movie lets us discern the gloomy circumstance surrounding Gummi, Kiddi, and other sheep farmer characters in the film. Although they are going to receive the considerate financial compensation from the government at least, they are depressed to see that they have no choice but to wipe out their meager but proud work of many years as ordered by authorities, and there is a sad, heartbreaking moment involved with a herd of sheep to be slaughtered and buried for preventing further infection. This is cruel indeed for these innocent sheep, but, sadly, it is one of the absolutely necessary procedures for removing any possible source of those highly transmissible scrapie proteins, for which any possible cure has not been developed yet even at this point (Fortunately, this is not an airborne disease).
Meanwhile, Gummi and Kimmi begin to face their old mutual resentment they have left alone for many years while concentrating on their work. Both of them are too proud and stubborn to bend themselves in front of each other, and the director/writer Grímur Hákonarson throws small funny moments of low-key humor into the quiet conflict growing between his two characters. While these moments may not be as uproarious as you think, they look so straightforward in their deadpan attitude that you may chuckle as enjoying their somberly hilarious elements.
Lead actors Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson believably inhabit their respective roles, and so do the other performers in the movie. With those wide landscapes of stark beauty, the cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen vividly conveys to us the gray, moody solitary ambience surrounding the characters in the film, and the animal performers including that plucky sheepdog are also handled well as another crucial part of the story.
“Rams”, which received the Prix Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, is one of a very few Icelandic films I saw during last 10 years (I only watched “Noi the Albino” (2003), to be frank with you). Because of its glacial plot progress, the movie demands some patience from you during its first half, but this is a rewarding experience on the whole for taking us to a different place and lifestyle via its good story, and you will find its ending literally heartwarming. After all, blood is warmer than snow, isn’t it?