Film Review: The Fencer

A feel-good, well-acted, visually evocative foreign-language biopic about a master fencing teacher in Soviet-controlled 1950s Estonia who changed the lives of his students.
Specialty Releases

Loosely inspired by the experiences of Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), Klaus Härö’s The Fencer tells the story of a young Soviet fencing master who, having fled Leningrad and its secret police in the early 1950s, arrives in Haapsalu, Estonia, where he lands a job as a gym teacher in an elementary-middle school.

Among other duties, he’s expected to create an extracurricular sports club for his students, many of whom have lost fathers, and in some instances both parents, thanks to the Russian occupation. He unwittingly becomes a kind of surrogate father figure to these youngsters whose lives are joyless and future-free.

Introducing his pupils to fencing, he opens up an exciting new universe to them and further alienates the priggish, small-minded and bureaucratic school principal (Hendrik Toompere, Sr.), who is already suspicious of Nelis and determined to put an end to his fencing program. He argues that fencing has no place in a true proletariat society, an oddball position if ever there was one, as the Soviets are continuing to host fencing tournaments.

Either way, he feels menaced—probably because the students are having a good time—and all the more provoked when their parents vote to continue the fencing program that has brought purpose to the lives of their children. The principal launches an investigation into Nelis, sorting through old records and contacting authorities in an effort to ferret out the dirt. It’s never entirely clear what crime Nelis committed, though at one point he admits he was a military deserter.

Meanwhile, his club is attracting an increasing number of youngsters who are spending many hours perfecting their newly acquired skills, with their sights set on participating in the upcoming fencing tournament in Leningrad. They are not remotely qualified to compete, but that’s only a part of the crisis Nelis faces. He knows returning to Leningrad is very risky for him and he must make a life-altering choice. The suspense works and overlaps on two levels.

Yes, it’s hokey and it’s pretty obvious where this feel-good flick is going, despite being a biopic that may or may not be accurate. The film has all the familiar requisite elements, from the small, lousy sports team tackling the well-prepared big-time competitors (think The Bad News Bears or Hoosiers) to the groundbreaking teacher who changes lives (think Dead Poets Society or Freedom Writers) to, most central, its sacrificial element: one man up against a brutal regime, with little hope of escape.

For purists, fictionalized biographies onscreen (stage or novels) are problematic. Even non-purists may find themselves wondering (and it is distracting) what’s real and what’s poetic license. The latter issue was a major stumbling block in A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic. Many of his assertions about the 19th-century poet were interpretative at best.

Undoubtedly, exploring the life of a lesser-known historical figure like Nelis gives the filmmakers more creative latitude. Few in the audience will know if the title character’s portrayal is off the mark or even if the events as described are totally fabricated. It’s far easier for viewers to suspend disbelief and enjoy (or not) the picture as a work of fiction, as long as it’s informed by the spirit of truth. And within those parameters, this one largely succeeds, its predictable arc, relationships and resolution notwithstanding.

For starters, The Fencer is a well-conceived and visually evocative film that brings to life the bleak and sinister atmosphere of a country under siege in the early ’50s, thanks to Tuomo Hutri’s grayish monochrome cinematography and screenwriter Anna Heinämaa’s sparse dialogue evoking a world where it’s safer not to speak and silence speaks volumes.

Without leaning on it, Härö hints at a universe where surveillance is everywhere. All the characters are constantly watchful—Nelis darting behind a wall because he believes he’s being shadowed by the police, though at that moment he’s not; and elsewhere an elderly man picked up by two soldiers in the middle of the night and driven away. We are never told why.

Characters and relationships evolve. Nelis is an aloof figure who has no special fondness for children but grows to feel responsible for their lives and increasingly attached to them, while the kids, lacking interest in anything or anyone, have found their mentor, a collective niche for themselves and shared common cause.

In one memorable scene, the students rip open two huge crates that have arrived for them. They’re not used to receiving gifts and these presents are especially meaningful, they soon discover, as they tear out the surrounding bits of protective paper to find fencing equipment of all types—from masks and gloves to shoes and lames—for everybody. Within moments they’re clad in their protective gear, playing in an imaginary bout, lurching forward, making thrusting motions with swords in hand. Their excitement is palpable and moving.

The performances are all excellent, most notably Avandi in a low-key turn as the compassionate but exacting teacher in personal conflict, but also Toompere as the tightly bottled principal and Lembit Ulfsak, who brings quiet dignity to an older man who understands the consequences of his actions or, worse, non-actions if he chooses that path.

A veteran director is behind the camera on this one. The Fencer is so pared down—so devoid of any excess—even as the tension builds. Only an experienced, self-assured artist would be as comfortable with the kind of minimalist aesthetic that defines this film. And Härö is, indeed, a critically acclaimed and popular Finnish director whose films have been hits on the Scandinavian festival circuit. The Fencer, Finland’s 2015 Oscar contender, is his fifth feature.

Like so many biopics, the most revelatory moments come just before the closing credits, when updates on the characters are printed onscreen, thus giving added credibility to everything that’s preceded it. Among other tidbits of information, we learn that the program Nelis started in 1953 is thriving today. That resonates.

Click here for cast and crew information.