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The Fencer (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 18, 2020

The Fencer


Starring Mart Avandi, Ursula Ratasepp, Hendrik Toompere Sr., Joonas Koff, Liisa Koppel, Egert Kadastu, Elbe Reiter, Ann-Lisett Rebane, Piret Kalda, Lembit Ulfsak, Kirill Karo, Jaak Prints, Kaarle Aho, Piret Kalda and Mikhail Paschuck.

Screenplay by Anna Heinamaa.

Directed by Klaus Haro.

Distributed by CFI Releasing. 99 minutes. Not Rated.

The inspirational teacher is a staple of film dramas, going back to classics like Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down Staircase, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and To Sir with Love. This serious but very likable film – the Danish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year – continues the genre, adding a little Cold War intrigue to the mix.

This film, set in mid-1950s Estonia, follows the basic structure of these films; based on the subgenre of sports and coaching. A quiet and somewhat unfeeling man moves to a far-away city, hiding a deep, dark secret from his past. He takes a job that he is undoubtedly too good for as a teacher in a rundown little school, and then learns to be a better man by teaching a bunch of adorable moppets how to compete.

The sport here – as you can tell from the title – is fencing. And if learning sword-fighting in the middle of the Soviet Bloc in the midst of the Cold War seems like an odd combination for a feel-good film, it turns out that The Fencer works surprisingly well in doing just that.

The movie is based on the true-life story of Estonian fencing master Endel Nelis, who opened a fencing school that thrives to this day. We are introduced to Endel as he takes a train into a small town in Estonia. We know from a phone conversation that he is apparently in hiding because he is a Soviet resister during the oppressive Stalin regime. (Interestingly, though it is not necessarily played here as a bad thing, it appears that he had been a Nazi soldier in his previous life, as well as a master fencer.)

While trying to live a low-key life as a gym teacher in a school that has almost no athletic equipment, he tries to find a way to keep his students interested without bringing unnecessary attention to himself with the secret police or the school’s hard-line Principal (played by Hendrik Toompere, Sr., who is a dead ringer for Ronald Lacey, who played the evil face-melting Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark).

One day, one of the students sees Endel practicing his fencing and evinces some interest in the sport. Since there is not much to do in the small town, soon all of the children want to learn how to fence. Endel is not used to working with children and has little in the way of teaching skills, and he is trying to teach them to swordfight literally with pointed sticks. The principal is staunchly against the program, but a child’s grandfather convinces the local families to support the program.

Eventually they get good enough to be in a nationwide tournament. However, if he goes Endel takes the very real risk of exposing himself to the authorities.

It’s not the world’s most unique story, though it does have the added benefit of mostly being true. It is also sweet and amiable, with a man’s awakening and a charmingly modest romance.

The Fencer thrusts and parries its way to a very touching finish.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: July 21, 2017.

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