'Fencer': Familiar, Yet Still a Historical Underdog Contender

Directed by: Klaus Haro; Runtime: 99 minutes
Grade: B

Sports dramas have this inherent poignancy that, more often than not, relies on two cinematic features for their success: either the effortless emotions of an underdog story, or the insights and unique context involved with depicting a sport that isn't so mainstream or regularly featured on the big screen. The options are starting to dry up, though, as there's only so many ways that the underdog story can be told and a finite number of unseen sports that can have a spotlight pointed on them. The Fencer slips in and manages to deliver a bit of both, depicting a post WWII-era youth sports club that resorts to the ancient art of sword-dueling in the absence of other athletic resources, revealing bits about the learning process involved with the sport, how its dangers are perceived, and how they factored into the political climate of USSR-occupied Estonia. While the maneuvers of its David vs. Goliath narrative might be familiar, the pacing, atmosphere, and raw spirit involved with bringing it to life mostly evades those recognizable traits.

In hopes of avoiding detection by Soviet's "secret army", ex-soldier Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi ) flees Leningrad for the small town of Haapsalu, Estonia, where he takes an instructor's position as the head of an athletic club for pre-teen children. Once there, he realizes that his post will involve bureaucracy from the school's principal and a lack of resources due to waning prioritization of the children's physical education, hinged more on keeping everyone under control and being good Soviets than enriching their lives. Frustrated, and with an athletic background of his own, Nelis decided to act on an idea that doesn't require much more than sticks and learned movements: to establish a fencing club for the children. The students' interest in the club ends up being more substantial than he had planned for, eventually leading them to grow interested in a competition taking place in … Leningrad. Ender Nelis is forced to choose whether he should risk his own well-being so the children might engage their ambitions and prove themselves.

The full authenticity of the recount might be disputable, but Endel Nelis was a real and esteemed fencing coach in Estonia, and The Fencer hopes to capture that semi-true story appeal with an almost docu-drama essence to the work. Austere, faded-color cinematography beautifully captures the sparseness of the school's halls and cramped domiciles of the Estonian town, which almost immediately surrenders to the energy of the children -- even during their first session -- as they start to embrace the physicality and artistry of the sport. The chronology of The Fencer can seem jumpy, advancing in time to progress the children's capabilities and interest levels, but this also lends immediacy to the meeting point between Endel's past and present. If there's a downside to the swift progression, it's that the attention paid to the students gets focused onto two individuals instead of an even dispersal across the whole fencing club, which can be significant when it comes to the film's themes about inspiring youth.

The Fencer zeroes in on depicting Endel Nelis and his impact upon the children, as well as the dilemmas involved in his establishment of the club and his decision about whether to compete in Leningrad. A spare, low-simmering emotional performance from Mart Avandi allows the instructor to take shape as a wounded, yet resolute byproduct of the pre-WWII era, someone who resolves their desire to retreat and attempt to life a normal life with sacrificing himself for the betterment of his pupils. While the pursuit for brevity persuades Nelis to transition and make choices with less effort than they probably should -- whether to teach children how to swordfight; whether to defy the school administration; whether to request supplies from across the border -- they also form into a heartening study of his traits. It's the relationship that forms with those two aforementioned students that become the film's expressive cornerstones: his bond with sweet, blond-haired Marta (a steadfast Liisa Koppel) spurs his desire to teach, and the pre-teen son of a local woman questions why a master fencer would be teaching them in the first place.

Director Klaus Haro does an admirable job of concealing the inevitability of The Fencer, but especially with this story's particular tempo, that's almost impossible to do. One can only hope that the fencing itself becomes engaging enough to hold interest in the throughline, and luckily the execution of the sport stays quick-witted and resourceful throughout, amplified by the immaculate photography that carefully observes the footwork, the lunges, and the space surrounding the opponents. Despite having seen this tale play out before in different contexts and characterizations -- Daniel LaRusso's angsty square-offs with the Cobra Kai; Rocky Balboa's rags-vs.-riches determination to brawl Apollo Creed -- The Fencer nails this sport's uniquely clever and delicate suspense once it reaches the competition phase in its penultimate act, less dramatic parrying and more swift reflexes and operating against the clock. Informed but not overburdened by the resolution of Eldel Nelis' flight from the Soviets, it lands blows as both rousing underdog fiction and a credible glimpse at fencing during a tense moment in history.

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