Apparently they consider “Rams” a comedy in Iceland, but if you spent most of the year in the dark, you might find humor in strange places, too. Grímur Hákonarson’s slow, deadpan, often oddly beautiful fable — a prize winner at Cannes and elsewhere on the festival circuit — is stranded in the snow somewhere between Shakespeare and Modern Sheep Farmer magazine. If you can adjust to its rhythms, which move according to the seasons and to long-held family grudges, you’ll find it quietly funny, sometimes quite sad, and ultimately rather profound. If you can’t, you’ll be left in the cold with the sheep.
The hero is Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjónsson), taciturn, bearded, and alone except for the 150 or so sheep he prefers to human company. His farm is one of two nestled next to each other in a desolate stretch of the Bardardalur Valley in the northeast of Iceland. The other farm belongs to Gummi’s brother, Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson). They haven’t spoken in 40 years and aren’t about to start now.
With a minimum of fuss, “Rams” depicts the hardscrabble realities of this vanishing way of life. The locals meet in the community hall for a “best ram” contest — Kiddi wins, as usual — and we sense that, old or young, long-established or neophyte, these farmers function on a knife’s edge of prosperity. If a livestock disease were to come along — but no one wants to think about that. Until they have to.
In its attentive and hushed way, the movie is about collision: between stubborn farmers and the government veterinary board, between ancient ways and modern times, between two old, hardheaded brothers. The comedy in “Rams” comes from that simmering feud — who knows or cares how it started — and the ways Gummi and Kiddi have incorporated it into their lives, like trees growing around a fence. They’ve evolved certain ways of communicating, for instance. Gummi writes a note on paper and gives it to Kiddi’s bright, helpful sheepdog to deliver. Kiddi, for his part, takes a shotgun to Gummi’s bedroom window.
The film moves from the relative lushness and community of summer to the deep freeze of winter, when everyone is on their own and Gummi has a secret to protect that makes him more hermit-like than before. There’s some slow-motion slapstick with snooping livestock veterinarians and one excellent sight gag involving Gummi, the drunken Kiddi, and a front-loading tractor, but the mood of “Rams” swings slowly and steadily toward the winds coming out of the north.
The final scenes have the punch of certain biblical parables, the ones where bitter hatreds melt suddenly and unexpectedly away. If you’re going to leave civilization behind, the movie implies, be prepared to huddle for warmth.
Written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson. Starring Sigurour Sigurjónsson, Theodór Júlíusson, Charlotte Boving. At the Coolidge. 93 minutes. R (language, brief graphic nudity, sheep sex). In Icelandic, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.