All happy families are alike — and so, apparently, are all feel-good sports flicks, even those set in the grim, rural outposts of the 1950s Soviet Union.
In the biopic “The Fencer,” Mart Avandi plays Endel Nelis, a champion Estonian fencer whose wartime past as a Nazi conscript makes him a target of the Russian secret police. Endel flees Leningrad for the small town of Haapsalu, Estonia, where he finds work running a high school sports club. After a young student, Marta (Liisa Koppel), sees Endel practicing his swordsmanship and asks him to teach her the sport, he shows the schoolchildren how to spar with reeds plucked from a nearby marsh. Despite the disapproval of the school’s principal (Hendrik Toompere), who thinks fencing evokes feudalism, and the ever-looming threat of the KGB, the children become enthusiastic fencers. When they read about an all-Soviet tournament in a local newspaper, they beg Endel to enter their team in competition.
Finnish Director Klaus Haro has a sharp eye, and his shots deftly juxtapose the delicate beauty of the Estonian lowlands with the harsh reality of life under Soviet rule. But the script, written by Anna Heinamaa, gives him little more than an aesthetic landscape to work with. Endel’s romance with a fellow teacher (Ursula Ratasepp) has about as much heat as a bowl of lukewarm borscht, and the conniving principal comes across as a cartoon villain. Though the camera follows Endel closely, we never really get inside his head — or explore the fear, regret and uncertainty that must plague him.
The third act, which follows Endel’s team to the championship, resembles any underdog sports movie. Replace the Estonian fencers with Latvian sprinters or Dutch chess players, and the plot — not to mention the cheesy suspense music — would be the same. When little Marta takes on the reigning champion from Moscow, a much older and larger boy, even the principal stops wringing his hands long enough to clap. The KGB agents only show up to arrest one minor character, who seems to have been allowed time to pack a suitcase before being whisked away in the back of a black car.
The film showcases some talented child actors, including, in addition to Koppel, Joonas Koff as the grandson of the arrested man. With luck, we’ll see both of them again — in a more inspired film.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some violence and disturbing scenes. In Estonian and Russian with subtitles. 99 minutes.