[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 5.]
First of all, in another life, I would have wanted to be an Icelandic shepherd. Second, Rams (streaming on Netflix) is a beautiful—truly—meditation on family, place, and history. There is the dark humor that comes with two brothers (Gummi and Kiddi) who live next to each other, doing anything and everything they can to avoid actually speaking with each other—up to and including training the dog to take messages back and forth.
Then there’s Gummi using his front loader to transport to the emergency room a passed-out and nearly frozen Kiddi. This follows the Christmas when Kiddi is found on Gummi’s doorstep, and Gummi helps him into a warm bath and then covers him up. (And then Gummi hides in his back room until Kiddi leaves.)
But in moments like those is revealed an underlying tenderness that even 40 years of bitterness can’t erase. This is the tension that finds its release in the final scenes, where the brothers’ literal survival depends on putting the past in the past.
And that’s part of the point: what, actually, is the past for the brothers? We see the division widened and the anger and bitterness exacerbated by competition, perceived slights, and negative assumptions, but we are never told what actually caused them to fall out with each other. It’s hinted that it has something to do with their father never wanting Kiddi to take over the farm, while their mother made Gummi promise to let Kiddi live in their childhood home. But we’re left to guess at the specific circumstances 40 years previous.
Does it matter, though, what brought them to this point? Whatever it was, every single action by either of the brothers reinforces the other one’s self-righteousness. Whatever Gummi does, Kiddi feels justified in his anger; likewise for Kiddi’s actions against Gummi. But the final poisoned straw is when Gummi reports that Kiddi’s prize-winning ram seems to have the fatal disease scrapie. This means that all the sheep in the valley that might have come into contact with the infected sheep have to be destroyed, lest the disease spread.
Of course Kiddi blames Gummi, because he reported it, though he didn’t cause the infection. This is the irrationality of blame when one is not only convinced of one’s own righteousness but knows indisputably that some others (or all others) are to blame for any and all misfortune. The narrative has been created, and even attempts at peace-making only put out the fire with gasoline. All evidence of the other’s interpretation of the facts is discounted, while everything that fits the pattern of my grievances is cherished and retained.
How draining and deadening it must be to proceed through one’s life as the only righteous one (a position only One can occupy). Christianity, however, teaches us that not only is no one righteous and that everyone lies about his own self-righteousness, but that I am not righteous. There is always enough blame to go around, and the only way forward is to begin with my own repentance, regardless of whether the other person recognizes his or her own contribution. The final moments of Rams show us a form of this repentance and the hope of full reconciliation.