Märt Avandi in The Fencer (CFI Releasing)

Set in early 1950s Soviet-controlled Estonia, The Fencer is inspired by the true-life story of Endel Nelis. Nominated in 2016 for a Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe, it is a unique take on the sports film, drawing both on heartwarming triumphs and a distinctive moment in history. Directed by Klaus Härö—four out of five of his films have been chosen to represent Finland at the Oscars—The Fencer takes a familiar formula and adds a compelling historical backdrop.

In an attempt to escape the secret police in Leningrad, experienced fencer Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) takes a job as a sports instructor in an Estonian backwater, Haapsalu. Initially, he’s completely uncomfortable with his young students, having no experience or patience for children. Resources at the rundown school are limited, but the principal (Hendrik Toompere) wants Endel to start a sports club. One day after school, a student, Marta (Liisa Koppel), spies on Endel practicing with his foil and asks to learn. He reluctantly begins a Saturday fencing club, in which dozens of students attend on the weekends.

Meanwhile, he’s falling in love with a fellow teacher, Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp), who encourages him not to give up on his students, who he feels aren’t learning fast enough. Slowly, Endel begins to commit to his teaching and enjoy passing on his knowledge. Embolden by the support of his confidant/friend Alexey (Kirill Käro), who donates equipment to the club, and a student’s grandfather (Lembit Ulfsak), who fenced decades ago, Endel becomes contented in his new small-town life.

However, the principal doesn’t feel that fencing is a sport fit for the proletariat and urges Endel to choose another. The students’ guardians, however, see a positive change in their children and vote to keep the fencing going. The principal, annoyed by this turn of events, acts on his suspicions of Endel and starts to investigate his background. When the students hear of a fencing tournament in Leningrad, they desperately want to attend and Endel must decide if it’s worth putting himself at risk for the benefit of his students—Alexey warns him not to return to Leningrad

Endel’s transformation from gloomy fugitive to dedicated mentor figure is fascinating to watch, in no small part to Avandi’s performance; there’s a subtlety in his change as he becomes visibly becomes happy in his new life, despite the secret police in the back of his mind. This transformation is seen, too, in the gorgeous cinematography, which transforms from cold greys and beiges to warmer colors as the film progresses.

Endel’s connection with the students is also developed with restraint. These children are mostly orphans, their families torn apart in the aftermath of the war and the Soviet occupation. The Fencer never hits its audience over the head with parallels between Endel and his charges or overplays the significance of the fencing club. Endel expresses the desire to live an ordinary life, without fear, same as his students; their modest stories are intricately weaved into the larger narrative.

While this sports film does end with a nail-biting tournament, complete with down-to-the-wire competition, it doesn’t feel clichéd in light of the film’s setting. The Fencer never shies away from the harsh reality of the postwar time period, even as it heartwarmingly depicts Endel’s dedication to his students and their admiration of him.

Directed by Klaus Härö
Written by Anna Heinämaa
Released by CFI Releasing
Estonian and Russian with English subtitles
Finland. 99 min. Not rated (probably G or PG)
With Märt Avandi, Ursula Ratasepp, Liisa Koppel, Lembit Ulfsak, Kirill Käro, and Hendrik Toompere

THE FENCER (dir. Klaus Härö, Finland/Estonia) – Official US trailer – OPENS JULY 21, 2017, IN NYC! from J. Howell on Vimeo.