Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Aug 22, 2017 7:02 pm 
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MÄRT AVANDI AND LIISA KOPPEL IN THE FENCER

Hiding and inspiring

Klaus Härö's The Fencer is based on a true story of a, well, famous fencer, who lived in Estonia, the town of Haapsalu, where this film takes place, in the Fifties, in the Soviet era. It's two kinds of tale: a story of paranoia and repression, and a conventional narrative of sports underdogs coached to success by an inspiring teacher. It's all played out in the delicate, pastel, flat world of rural Estonia, in the style of Finnish director Klaus Härö and his dp, Tuomo Hutri. It's all very well done, in its way, though not likely to raise your blood pressure. If you like the blend of Soviet occupied Estonia and fencing, there is a hint of something brave and poetic: the pursuit of an elegant, restrained sport in the face of bullies and creeps. Bathe in the grayness. This movie is beautifully bland. But there's this problem of the pulse. It sometimes barely has one. An odd film that some will get and like, and others will sit through and forget.

Those bullies and creeps would be the principal at the school (Hendrik Toompere Sr.) and his toady assistant (Jaak Prints), who putter around trying to mess up our hero's fun. He is Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), a placid man but a stern teacher, who has come here from Leningrad (a fencing champion, but he doesn't' talk about that), for reasons that later become clear. First his boss attempts to eliminate fencing on the grounds that it's "feudal" and un-proletarian. But the school parents know their kids are loving this unique new sport, and it's not feudal: Marx fenced in his younger days. Next the principal sets out on a more dangerous path -
investigating Endel's past. He must have come here from Leningrad for some reason. And he has. The KGB is sniffing around because, in his youth, he had a Nazi connection. He is an Estonian who was drafted into the German army and became a war resister - member of a group the Soviets have persecuted, forcing him into hiding for most of his life. He's getting tired of it.

The best scenes are the fencing lessons in the little gymnasium, which radiate the quiet joy of the kids, and the obligatory tournament at the end. Endel has two particular pets, Marta (Liisa Koppel), the feisty young girl who starts it all, by seeing Endel practicing by himself, when he's merely a new gym teacher, and asks him to teach her to fence; and the handsome and serious Jaan (Joonas Koff), whose grandfather (Lembit Ulfsak) fenced in Germany in his youth (those were the days, and that was the place!), and inspires him to care.

There's always a hint of trouble. So when Endel learns "some men have come for you," it's scary, even though it turns out they're just bringing them two big boxes full of secondhand fencing equipment from his friend and coach Aleksei (Kirill Käro) for his students. Anna Heinamaa's screenplay loves to plant red herrings. And perhaps Endel's quiet romance with fellow teacher Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp) is so tamped down because laying low in rural Estonia isn't sexy. And when the editing mixes a nice full-dress fencing class with the principal's bewhiskered toady snooping through government files, it's really seriously messing with our fun. Some conceptions of Soviet-era repression are a tad too rigorous.

However, this movie is all about suspense, of the two distinct kinds, which it keeps balanced when Endel decides, against Alexei's warning, to take his enthusiastic kids - many orphaned by war or Soviet deportations - to the grand secondary school fencing tournament in Leningrad, even though they're new to the sport, and even though it's risky for him to return there. We don't know for sureiff that last part was actually true of the real Endel Nelis, Estonian fencing champion who started an important fencing club out in the country, but it adds much tension and drama to the trip, and portent to his long goodbye to Kadri before he leaves with the team. Did I feel the familiar sports movie manipulation happening? Yes, I did. But the atmosphere, the period, the setting, and the sport were quite unusual. Fans of Soviet fencing have got to see this.

The Fencer/Miekkailija, 99 mins., debuted in Estonia in Mar. 2015; showed in eight festivals in 2015 and 2016 and opened in various countries in 2016, including the UK; US theatrical release 21 Jul. 2017 and other locations including Landmark theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley 25 Aug. 2017.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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