A winner of the Un Certain Regard at last year’s Cannes (and other prizes since) this Icelandic tale of brotherly hate can be bleak but it’s also touching and funny.
Brothers Gummi (Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Júlíusson) are two rival sheep farmers who haven’t spoken to each other in forty years even though their farmhouses are a stone’s throw from each other. When the more reserved Gummi loses out to blustery alcoholic Kiddi in the latest ram contest – and it’s a whisker between them: half a point! – a vexed Gummi inspects the winning ram for himself… and finds scrapie, a fatal, degenerative disease that could spell disaster for the entire valley. All farmers are ordered to slaughter their flock but the brothers aren’t prepared to give up their livelihood so easily…
Having made a name for himself in documentaries (2010’s Summerland is only other narrative feature to date) Hárkonarson shows he understands real people in real situations. The devastating news – what scrapie and the slaughter means to the valley families financially as well as psychologically – is given full heft. And there’s the emotional resonance too with Gummi breaking down as he prepares himself to do the unthinkable and kill his flock. The windswept, bleak surroundings highlight the isolation and loneliness, and in placing these two farmhouses right at the foot of an imposing mountain not only gives off an atmosphere of impending doom but also belittles the brothers’ quarrel (the roots of which we only find out much later).
If all that sounds like a total downer Hárkonarson always keeps a little humour in reach just in case things get too bleak. The outright refusal to speak to each other, only passing written messages (and invoices) via Kiddi’s sheepdog, borders on the silly. One scene has Gummi getting into bed but we can see through the window a staggering Kiddi stepping into frame, pausing for a moment before firing his shotgun through the window. Another has Kiddi pass out in the snow and Gummi lifting him to the hospital in the bucket of a digger. And there’s warmth too: an early scene has Gummi carry a dead ram he finds on his brother’s property to Kiddi’s door – an unspoken understanding that the sheep are more than livestock.
Of course all this would mean nothing without the lived-in performances from Sigurour Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson – it takes more than holey woolly jumper and scraggy beard to make these two as believable and engaging as the two leads do.