“The Fencer,” Finland’s official Academy Award entry for 2016, is an effective mix of underdog sports drama and political thriller, inspired by the true-life story of celebrated fencing champ Endel Nelis.
The 1953-set film finds Estonian resister Endel (a finely understated Märt Avandi) forced to flee Leningrad — and Stalin’s secret police — and return to his Soviet-occupied homeland to hide away in the tiny town of Haapsalu. There, he’s hired as an athletic instructor at the local secondary school, whose dour, provincial principal (Hendrik Toompere) mistrusts Endel’s big-city past.
But when Endel cobbles together a fencing club, he finds enough enthusiasm from the students — including soulful Jaan (Joonas Koff) and puckish Marta (Liisa Koppel) — and their downtrodden parents and guardians to defeat the principal’s disdain for a sport he deems a “relic of feudal times.”
Endel also begins a gentle romance with a caring fellow teacher (Ursula Ratasepp).
Later, despite his initial reluctance, Endel enters his eager young trainees in a national fencing tournament in Leningrad, which results in its share of inspirational moments as well as suspense as Endel risks capture by Soviet authorities.
Director Klaus Härö, working from a script by Anna Heinämaa, deftly captures the grayish gloom and day-to-day paranoia of postwar Soviet life, while infusing this absorbing tale with affecting emotion.