Fencing is one of the oldest games in existence. It requires fast thinking, strong legs, and focused and fast movements. There have not been many films about this sport and that is one reason to experience this Finnish film directed by Klaus Härö. The screenplay mixes facts with fiction as it unspools the life of a legendary Estonian fencing master.
The setting for this drama is Haapsalu, Estonia, in 1953, when the country was occupied by the oppressive Soviet Union and its malevolent leader Joseph Stalin. Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) leaves his home in Leningrad and settles down in this small town. He takes a job as a high school gym teacher.
When his plans to offer a ski club are dashed, he decides to have an after-school fencing club for the boys and girls. Two of his most ardent supporters are Marta (Liisa Koppel) and Jaan (Joonas Koff). Another teacher (Ursula Ratasepp) praises Nelis for giving these teenagers something new, hopeful, and precious in their somber lives.
When the school's principal (Hendrik Toompere Sr.) fails to rally community support for a ban on fencing as a relic of a pre-communist era, this zealot convinces one of his subordinates to dig up some dirt on Nelis. Meanwhile, the students rejoice when a close friend of their teacher sends him two large boxes containing swords and helmets. Nelis's future is on the line when he must decide whether or not to enter his best students in a national fencing competition in Leningrad.
The thoughtful screenplay for The Fencer is written by Anna Heinämaa who understands that personal goodness is a positive and enduring virtue that has nothing to do with being meek or weak or powerless. Nelis models for us the true strength and courage needed to take risks by putting the needs and welfare of others above one's own safety and security.