By Jared Huizenga – Contributing Writer
During World War II, Estonia was overrun by Nazis and most of the country’s men were drafted for military service. Following the war, when Estonia was taken over by the Soviet Union. Those soldiers and military police forces viewed Estonians as war criminals, whether they served by their own volition or not.
Among those evading the authorities was Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi). His journey lands him in the small village of Haapsalu, where he takes a job as a sports instructor at the local school.
Endel is also an accomplished fencer, and after being discovered by one of his inquisitive students, Marta (Liisa Koppel) soon begins teaching the students in his program his sport of choice – much to the dismay of some at the school.
As the program grows and the students improve, they catch wind of an all USSR fencing tournament to be held in Leningrad – the very city Endel has been running from.
He is forced to choose between the dreams of his pupils and his own personal well-being.
The most interesting thing about this movie – and something I didn’t learn until the end credits – is that Endel Nelis was an actual man and that this movie is based on real events.
The most impressive thing about this movie is that despite being very centered around what I consider to be an incredibly dull sport, “The Fencer” is actually very engaging and keeps you on the edge of your seat (at least figuratively) throughout its 90(ish)-minute run time.
It’s got the classic underdog, fish-out-of-water story of the kids in Endel’s program, but it also has the intrigue of “will the Soviets catch him” narrative going on. Honestly, if it weren’t for the subtitles, you could pretty easily mistake for one of those feel-good Disney stories … but with a bit more danger. And more communists.
The fact that the film doesn’t delve too deep into the political/societal climate of the time, helps it keep from getting bogged down. You know Endel is on the run, you know who he’s on the run from, and you know the risks he’s taking, but the deeper meaning of those things is implied, which keeps the narrative moving and engaging.
It’s easy to see why “The Fencer” was nominated for the 2016 Golden Globes for Best Foreign Language Film and why it was short-listed for the Academy Awards in the same category.
“The Fencer” opens this week at the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Society in Minneapolis.
★★★★ of ★★★★★
Jared Huizenga is a freelance movie critic. Follow his work at www.facebook.com/JaredMovies.