“The Fencer” dresses up the un­der­dog sports movie

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Maia Silber

★¼55 Un­rated. In Es­to­nian and Rus­sian with sub­ti­tles. 99 min­utes.

All happy fam­i­lies are alike — and so, ap­par­ently, are all feel-good sports flicks, even those set in the grim, ru­ral out­posts of the 1950s Soviet Union.

In the biopic “The Fencer,” Märt Avandi plays En­del Nelis, a cham­pion Es­to­nian fencer whose wartime past as a Nazi con­script makes him a tar­get of the Rus­sian se­cret po­lice. En­del flees Len­ingrad for the small town of Haap­salu, Es­to­nia, where he finds work run­ning a high school sports club. Af­ter a young stu­dent, Marta (Li­isa Kop­pel), sees En­del prac­tic­ing his swords­man­ship and asks him to teach her the sport, he shows the schoolchil­dren how to spar with reeds plucked from a nearby marsh.

De­spite the dis­ap­proval of the school’s prin­ci­pal (Hen­drik Toom­pere), who thinks fenc­ing evokes feu­dal­ism, and the ever-loom­ing threat of the KGB, the chil­dren be­come en­thu­si­as­tic fencers. When they read about an all-Soviet tour­na­ment in a lo­cal newspaper, they beg En­del to en­ter their team in com­pe­ti­tion.

Fin­nish Di­rec­tor Klaus Haro has a sharp eye, and his shots deftly jux­ta­pose the del­i­cate beauty of the Es­to­nian low­lands with the harsh re­al­ity of life un­der Soviet rule. But the script, writ­ten by Anna Heina­maa, gives him lit­tle more than an aes­thetic land­scape to work with.

En­del’s ro­mance with a fel­low teacher (Ur­sula Ratasepp) has about as much heat as a bowl of luke­warm borscht, and the con­niv­ing prin­ci­pal comes across as a car­toon vil­lain. Though the cam­era fol­lows En­del closely, we never re­ally get in­side his head — or ex­plore the fear, re­gret and un­cer­tainty that must plague him.

The third act, which fol­lows En­del’s team to the cham­pi­onship, re­sem­bles any un­der­dog sports movie. Re­place the Es­to­nian fencers with Lat­vian sprint­ers or Dutch chess play­ers, and the plot — not to men­tion the cheesy sus­pense mu­sic — would be the same.

When lit­tle Marta takes on the reign­ing cham­pion from Moscow, a much older and larger boy, even the prin­ci­pal stops wring­ing his hands long enough to clap. The KGB agents only show up to ar­rest one mi­nor char­ac­ter, who seems to have been al­lowed time to pack a suit­case be­fore be­ing whisked away in the back of a black car.

The film show­cases some tal­ented child ac­tors, in­clud­ing, in ad­di­tion to Kop­pel, Joonas Koff as the son of the ar­rested man.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.