A fabulous fencing film? Touché
Its 1952, and, in an effort to evade the secret police, former champion fencer Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi) arrives in the far-flung Estonian town of Haapsalu to teach sports at the local secondary school. When much of the gymnastic equipment disappears for military usage, the young man reluctantly starts a fencing club which proves to be spectacularly popular, despite warnings from the school’s buzzkill principal that the sport is not ideally “suited to the proletariat”.
Before you can say “Dead Poets Society with sabres,” the frosty Endel warms to his students – particularly eager Marta (Liisa Koppel) and rowdy Jaan (Joonas Koff) – and even embarks of a slow-burning romance with a teaching colleague Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp). In time, the kids are skilled enough to compete in a Soviet tournament in Leningrad. But will Endel jeopardise himself for the dreams of his charges?
This handsomely made historical drama –the Finnish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Academy Awards – faithfully follows the beats of not one but two feelgood genres. It’s unlikely but inspirational teacher shares DNA with Jack Black in School of Rock; its sporting underdogs have much in common with, well, any sports movie you care to mention.
The film noisily rails against Estonia’s Soviet history – we are repeatedly reminded that many of the children have been orphaned due to the Russian occupation - but remains rather quiet about other details: Endel is a wanted man because he served with the Wehrmacht, albeit as a conscript. Perhaps that is why the fictionalised Endel remains something of an enigma throughout.
Still, the historical context does add a unique texture to the familiar trajectory of Anna Heinamaa’s sturdy screenplay, as does Tuomo Hutri’s wintry photography. Klaus Härö’s stately direction changes gear to bring white-knuckle thrills to the final fencing bout.
Get to the point: Märt Avandi in The Fencer