For me it’s one of the best submissions for the Foreign Language Oscar. It’s an old school style film told compellingly and technical aplomb across the board. It’s a film that was way better that I thought would ever be.
The film is based on the life of Estonian fencer Endel Nelis. Forcibly conscripted by the Nazi’s during the Second World War Nelis was branded an enemy of the people for “collaborating” when the Soviets took control of the country. Wanting to be as far away from Stalin as possible he takes a teaching position in a far flung town. In order to keep a low profile he represses his desire to fence. One day the desire to fence over takes him and he is seen by one of the kids practicing. This results in his being "forced" teaching the kids to fence. However as his students gain skill and a desire to compete Nelis is forced to make a choice, take the kids to a tournament and risk discovery and arrest or remain home and remain safe.
Staying firmly on Nelis, who is almost never not in a scene, the film remains grounded in the human story. Additionally by focusing on Nelis‘s story during the period of 1952 and 1953 the story never gets too big. We remain in the small closed world that Nelis has retreated into. He is a man trying to remain hidden and safe so in most scenes we are very aware of wall and floors and ceilings as if he is caged. Only when the sequences become about fencing do things open up as if his soul opens to the world.
What I love about the film is the simplicity of the storytelling. The film is structured just to be Nelis‘s story. There isn’t any big pretense about it being about some great meaningful story. Yes the thematic elements of lost fathers, things we’ll do for our children and the insanity of power run all through the tale, but at the same time the film is just one man‘s story. It’s the story about one man trying to do the right thing and make the world a better place by sharing what he loves.
In reading on the film there were a couple of pieces which complained that the film as too old fashioned and they knew where the film was going to go. The reaction, while not too far out of place since the film is intentionally old fashioned, with the gorgeous cinematography giving much of the film a golden coloring tinge with the result that everything with is ripe with a nostalgia. On the other hand the film isn’t really clichéd. How can a true story be clichéd? Is it that the story has been sort of fashioned in to a crowd pleaser? To have refashioned it into some other story would have defeated the purpose of telling this story. Were they expecting grand tragedy? That’s not what happened.
For me this is one of those films that grabs you from the moment it starts. The simplicity of the titles explaining Stalin’s madness about conscripted soldiers give way to Nelis getting off the train. As we walk with him to the school we fall into this time and this place. Simply by observing Mart Avandi as Nelis we come to like him and we see him as a friend. We care and it’s this caring that carries over to everything that follows.
This is a great little film.
While I wouldn’t say that THE FENCER is one of the tippy top tier films I’ve seen in 2015 it is most certainly on the top tier of the Oscar hopefuls. Its so much better than the majority of the other potential Oscar films I’ve seen this year that I think it would be a damn shame if Oscar doesn’t at least give it a nomination. I think this a super film and its going on my year end list of film finds.
Go see it when it opens in theaters or if you're in New York you can see it on January 20th when it screens at the Scandinavia House on January 20 as part of their Oscar hopeful series