The Fencer (Miekkailija) movie review: en garde against yourself

The Fencer green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

The true story of an Estonian sports hero offers a lovely twist on a familiar tale. A cinematic triumph from a nation that’s been missing from the global film stage.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s a familiar sort of tale, but in a setting we haven’t seen before: Reluctant teacher ends up inspiring underdog kids to succeed in a sport they have no prior experience in… in early 1950s Estonia, the Baltic republic annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II and suffering under Stalin’s harsh regime. Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), in hiding from the secret police (he’s wanted for a completely unjust reason) in the small town of Haapsalu, takes a job teaching phys ed in the local secondary school; it’s the sort of place where there’s no money for equipment, and even the kids figure that if he were any good, he wouldn’t be here.

Endel is meant to be keeping his head down, lest he find himself on his way to a labor camp in Siberia, but he can’t resist passing on his passion for fencing; he’s not only good, in fact, he’s a former champion. The kids are skittish and traumatized: many have been orphaned in the Soviet occupation; and Endel needs to learn how to be a good teacher: he lacks patience, on top of his constant fear of being found out. Hearts will be thawed and then thoroughly warmed all around by the stirring ending; if it doesn’t bring a lump to your throat, you might be one of the cold Soviet drones who are the villains here.

Gotta hand one thing to the Soviets: they didn’t think it was weird that girls might be into sports.
Gotta hand one thing to the Soviets: they didn’t think it was weird that girls might be into sports.

Based on a true story — the real Nelis is a national hero in Estonia, where fencing is extremely popular — The Fencer is a beautiful, finely wrought production with terrific performances: Avandi takes Endel from lost dissolution to steely purpose, all with an unwavering gentleness that is never less than robustly masculine; and stealing her every scene is young Liisa Koppel as Marta, a very small student with big stubbornness who keeps giving Endel the boot in the ass he needs.

The Fencer was a Golden Globe nominee in 2016 for Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language, and Finland’s official submission to last year’s Oscars. And though it is a joint Finnish-German-Estonian production, with a Finnish director, Klaus Härö, and writer, Anna Heinämaa, there is something of an Estonian triumph to the film apart from its humane loveliness. Estonia’s film industry has faltered since the nation achieved independence, just before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Between this movie and the Estonian-Georgian coproduction Tangerines, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2015, the nation’s cinema is clearly in resurgence. I’d love to hear what other stories the Estonians have to tell.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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