Rams: a minimal but insubstantial film on the fragility of family and community ties and traditions against the outside world

Grimur Hakonarson, “Rams / Hrutar” (2015

Forty years ago, a family rift led to two brothers in an Icelandic sheep-farming family going their separate ways, splitting the family property in half so that each brother tends to his own flock of pedigreed heritage sheep. For forty years the two brothers Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) don’t speak to each other and Kiddi’s dog Somi takes handwritten messages from one to the other if they have to communicate. And forty years after the family conflict, now long forgotten, the two brothers do have to come together and communicate: in one of the brothers’ flocks, a ram comes down with a disease feared to be scrapie. The entire valley where the brothers live becomes a scrapie disaster zone and the government in Rejkjavik decrees that all sheep farmers in the area must slaughter their animals, clean and disinfect their properties and equipment, and remain sheep-free for two calendar years. Some sheep farmers are devastated by this news and decide to give up their farms; Gummi tries to comply with the regulations but can’t bring himself to kill his beloved ram; and Kiddi refuses point-blank to comply with the law. Faced with the extinction not only of their unique breed of sheep but also of their family legacy and way of life, the sensitive Gummi and stubborn, hard-drinking Kiddi need to come together if they’re to save Gummi’s prize ram and a small set of ewes from the veterinarians and the agricultural authorities.

The film starts as a quirky eccentric comedy centred around the brothers’ personality quirks and their feud, and gradually develops into a bleak tale in which the two are driven to desperate measures and risk their lives to maintain a family / cultural tradition. The isolation of these elderly sheep-farmers in a remote part of Iceland, and the self-reliant, taciturn nature such isolation engenders (even if its flip-side is eccentric and silent stubbornness) becomes apparent; even the government inspectors and the family lawyer from the south are puzzled by the brothers’ behaviour, and talk too much (and they’re Icelanders!) for the viewers’ comfort. Audiences become very aware of the attachment farmers like Gummi and Kiddi have for their animals and for the harsh physical environment where they have lived all their lives, and of the intrusive inspectors and veterinarians from Rejkjavik who look out of place in the windswept (and, in winter, snow-laden) open landscapes.

The plot is perhaps too simple and the characters of Gummi and Kiddi a little too stereotyped to carry the film’s themes of community and family ties, and how fragile these can be, successfully. The film spends more time with Gummi (whose daily routines are on the dull side) and not much at all on Kiddi so we know little about Kiddi other than that he drinks too much and is prone to anger and even violence. At times the film does drag with long silences – but that’s probably a problem for us city people with our short attention spans and dislike of long pauses in conversation – and the family conflict that split apart the brothers is never explained so viewers remain in the dark about how it came to have such a deep effect on the two men.

The film might have been more successful had the characters of the two men been more developed, and perhaps a sub-plot included as well. Something about how the outside world increasingly encroaches on the isolated sheep-farming community in a remote part of Iceland, and the changes it brings – changes that threaten a traditional way of life and the physical environment – would have added an extra layer of interest and conflict. The two brothers’ reaction to the threat that the authorities pose to their beloved ram and ewes may seem pathetic to some viewers and heroic (in a tragic sort of way) to others.

For a movie that is not long – it’s not quite 90 minutes – “Rams” does wear out its welcome quickly.

Memoria: a tight closed narrative loop with no chance of forgiveness or redemption

Elísabet Ýr Atladóttir, “Memoria” (2013)

A creepy psychological character study, “Memoria” is very depressing to watch. The single protagonist, Vincent, is a young alcoholic and drug addict who is tormented by inner demons. He stumbles into an abandoned house and is quickly overwhelmed by a mysterious and invisible entity that forces him to revisit aspects of his past as he winds his way through the house’s labyrinthine corridors and secret rooms. He remembers his parents’ troubled marriage and the effects it has had on him. He remembers the rage he felt when his younger brother teased him and the punishment he brought down on the boy. Remorse washes over him and he reaches out for something that will end all his torment …

The 3D animation is well done though fairly conventional in its look and backgrounds. The abandoned house is no different from other haunted domiciles in its long dark and spooky passages, the cracks in the walls and the sense of dread present throughout. As you might expect in haunted-house scenarios, the weather outside is dark and stormy. The story is tight and insular with a limited number of characters and ends in a definite closed loop, thus cutting off the possibility of cosmic forgiveness and redemption. It seems no lesson has been learned and if the characters happen to reincarnate together, they’ll repeat their actions that lead to violence, mean-spiritedness and suicide. And so the cosmic vicious circle continues.

Ultimately the way in which the story is resolved, with no suggestion of hope or a chance to make amends, is something of a let-down for this short.

Noi the Albino: film about a teenager needing a purpose and anchor in life … like a proper film

Dagur Kari, “Noi the Albino” (2003)

This is a curious film where  little happens and then all of a sudden, something happens and bang … THE END. “Noi the Albino” is a study of teenage frustration and isolation: main character Noi (Tomas Lemarquis) is a 17 year old youth who lives in a tiny village at the foot of a snow-covered cliff overlooking a bay in a remote part of Iceland. Born into a poor family that’s always been down on its luck – he lives with his grandmother Lina (Anna Fridriksdottir) and his taxi-driver father Kiddi (Throstur Leo Gunnarsson) who drifts in and out of his son’s life – Noi has the misfortune to be highly intelligent and non-conformist in a place that’s too small or narrow-minded to make use of his abilities and quirks. His folks can’t provide him with the financial and moral support he needs to advance farther in life so, unmotivated and lacking in direction and guidance, he wags school frequently – frequently enough to end up getting expelled – and spends his time hanging out at a local bookshop, drinking ginger beer at the local petrol station cafe, wandering around the bay shooting at icicles on the hill or frittering time away in his secret room in the cellar under Lina’s house.

A couple of things happen that brighten Noi’s life: the bookshop owner’s daughter Iris (Elin Hansdottir) comes into town to work at the cafe and Lina gives Noi a View-Master gadget which has images of scenes from tropical countries. Iris’s father Oskar (Hjalti Rognvaldsson) warns Noi to stay away from Iris but Noi seeks her out when he can and they end up falling in love. When he’s not with Iris, Noi spends his spare time looking at photographs of the beach and the American man in Aztec regalia on his View-Master, among other photos. On one occasion Noi and Iris break into the local natural museum and hide in a storage place; they see a map of the world and Noi discovers Iceland’s true significance – or rather, insignificance – to the rest of the planet. Iris encourages him to press a button, which he does so, and the Hawaiian islands light up on the map. This sets Noi off, dreaming about leaving his home village with Iris and heading off for sunnier, tropical climes, and trying to achieve that dream, however clumsy and stupid his methods are.

In the meantime, Lina and Kiddi try to find work for Noi – Kiddi gets him a grave-digging job at the local cemetery and Lina consults Gylfi (Kjartan Bjargmundsson), a mechanic and fortune-teller, to tell Noi’s fortune. Noi visits Gylfi who foretells death which Noi finds nonsensical. A series of other incidents follow in which Noi gets in trouble with the police and has to be bailed out by his dad. Retreating into his underground cellar room, Noi discovers his room is shaking, dirt comes pouring out of the ceiling and all the lights go out …

With no plot to speak of, “Noi the Albino” is an impressionistic view of how one teenager, an outsider in his village by an unlucky combination of personality quirks, looks (he has alopecia so he looks like an alien) and family circumstances, tries to cope with the isolation and boredom of his monotonous life with the limited resources he has. There are other local kids like Dabbi about but they are too different from him or their parents don’t want them hanging out with him. The movie gives no indication of the period it’s set in but the lack of computers in the school (the principal has no PC on his desk in one scene) or in the bank (there’s no ATM on the outside) suggest the 1970’s or 1980’s and in those days, without the Internet and the information sources and social networks it offers, loners like Noi really were loners, adrift through no fault of their own in a world cut off from everywhere else and where everyone knows you and has certain (non)expectations of you. As Noi, Lemarquis does well in portraying a youngster brought up to be stoic and unemotional yet troubled and at sea morally, needing help but refusing it when offered by people he happens to dislike. He’s clearly the type who’ll work for something that’s worth achieving but won’t do so just for the sake of being a hard worker and being disciplined: in his own way he diligently pursues Iris though whether he ends up loving her for herself or because he sees her as a life-line is another thing. Some of his problems with others arise because he figures out how to work smarter or takes the initiative to do something creative and different that would actually benefit everyone but upsets more conventional types. To take an example, the maths teacher at school complains about Noi’s use of a cassette-recorder to record his lessons in his absence, even though the arrangement would benefit him as well as Noi as he wouldn’t have to put up with Noi’s insolent behaviour. Noi is the kind of personality difficult to like on a purely social level but spend enough time with him as Iris does and you may find he’s not really a bad guy, he just needs a purpose and anchor in life, a bit more humility and something or someone to show him the way or throw him the opportunity.

The world Noi lives in is portrayed beautifully in a matter-of-fact way: repeated shots of the village, hugging the shoreline of the bay beneath a huge and brooding hill with an almost sheer cliff-face, suggests the awesome and unpredictable power of nature which drastically turns Noi’s life upside-down and fulfills Gylfi’s alarming prediction. The event might appear to some viewers as a theatrical deus ex machina device to get the film really going and finished with a climax that would justify everything that’s gone before but it didn’t seem that way to me, perhaps because I’ve heard a fair amount of Scandinavian and other northern European popular and alternative music and read about their creators, seen a few movies from that part of the world, and read a bit about its history and culture, to know that Icelanders have a perverse sense of humour which they probably developed to cope with their harsh and unpredictable environment, isolation and poverty over the centuries, and they would find an avalanche slamming into Noi’s small world and giving him what he needs blackly ironic. There’s a hint that Noi himself precipitates the event in a small way when he shoots down icicles hanging off the cliff earlier in the film so the climax isn’t entirely an after-thought. Nature affects Noi in other ways too, particularly in his dreary job as grave-digger where he must brave cold winds and dig in unforgiving permafrost. The conclusion which brings the beach photo in the View-Master to life is enigmatic, suggesting on one level that Noi finally loses contact with the real world and drifts off permanently into a fantasy world, and on another level, confirming to him that his life purpose is to escape Iceland and hinting at the possibility of a sequel in which Noi finally makes his way to Hawaii.

The film won’t suit all tastes and in spite of Lemarquis’s acting and the cinematography I did find the film uninteresting overall and it runs out of puff quickly. Elin Hansdottir as Iris is blank and it’s difficult to see what Noi might see in her, which suggests his contact with women has been very limited or maybe he does see her as his life-line out of Iceland. The relationship which should have been the film’s spine barely gets off the ground. Grandmother Lina and dad Kiddi provide humorous moments (Kiddi smashing a piano with an axe is the most exciting thing to see in the whole film, and the sausage-making scene where Lina and Kiddi are accidentally splashed with sheep’s blood is the second most exciting thing) as do some minor characters such as the French teacher who demonstrates how to make mayonnaise in class and ends up with a ruined result. Lacking a plot and with a support cast of mostly sketchy characters existing for Noi to bounce off, the film has an uphill struggle appealing to viewers emotionally. I’m not against films with no obvious narrative or plot, some of my favourite films have no plot; it’s just that a film must have something else strong to compensate for the lack. Perhaps the film could have been condensed into something much shorter, say, around 80 minutes with a cryptic message at the end along the lines of “To be continued … maybe …”, that might encourage viewers to see “Noi the Albino” as a prequel to a main event that would justify its existence and Noi’s. Yes I think Noi’s life purpose includes a proper film vehicle to make use of his talents and quirkiness.