Nominated a year ago for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globe Awards and also the official Finnish contender for the 2016 Academy Awards, The Fencer is a surprisingly rousing work about an Estonian fencer named Endel (Märt Avandi) who arrives in a small town in his homeland to be a gym teacher, after years of living in Leningrad after the war.
Set in the 1950s, we’re told at the beginning of the film that Estonia had the unfortunate position of having its men forced to serve in both the German army (at the beginning of the war) and the Soviet Union (toward the end). As a result, any man caught by the Soviet secret police having served Germany was considered a criminal and sent to a labor camp.
When we meet Endel, he is actually fleeing Leningrad, hoping to hide out in the desolate town of Haapsalu, where he starts up an after-school sports club to teach the kids the only sport he truly knows—fencing. Because Endel’s youth and good looks rub the principal (Hendrik Toompere) the wrong way, the communist agents working at the school immediately begin investigating Endel’s background. While the kids get remarkably better at fencing under his instruction and they even enter a competition back in Leningrad (the last place Endel should go), his past begins catching up with him.
Written by Anna Heinämaa and directed by Finnish filmmaker Klaus Härö, The Fencer works thanks in large part to a series of small moments that add up to a robust character study of both Endel and the town, filled with residents who are none too happy about being on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Endel strikes up a sweet relationship with another teacher (Ursula Ratasepp), and he befriends two of the children (Liisa Koppel as Marta and Joonas Koff as Jaan), who become his star pupils. The kids find that fencing helps them distinguish themselves in a way that nothing else in this dead-end town could, and their attachment to Endel becomes vital in their lives, especially since so many of them are fatherless themselves.
The entire tale is loosely based on the real-life fencer Endel Nelis, and it ends almost too traditionally, with a fencing match and a championship on the line, leaving few sports-movie cliches untouched. Still, The Fencer had me by the heart by that point, the bulk of the movie told in such a quiet, dignified manner with cinematography that manages to show both the beauty and desolation of Estonia. It’s also an important story because it’s about a good teacher, one who doesn’t want to let these kids down the way seemingly everything else in their life has. The match itself is almost superfluous; it’s his commitment to and love of these children that cuts the deepest. It’s the simple, beautifully crafted story that wins the day.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.