It’s no great surprise that Finnish-produced film The Fencer made it to last year’s Oscar Foreign Language shortlist. Klaus Härö’s biopic of expert Estonian fencing coach, Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) exists at the intersection of a crowd-pleasing underdog story – scrappy Estonian youths taught by a reluctant if increasingly inspirational teacher to overcome the odds – and a post-war resistance narrative.
It’s a clever combination, not only because it appeals to Oscar voters, but because the two storylines are perfectly complementary. The pall of inevitability hanging over Endel – whose conscription into the German army in his youth sees him targeted by Soviet secret police – is softened by the hope of his students. Just as Endel is torn with staying alive and truly living, the film is granted complexity by the schism between its two halves.
Culminating with a journey to a Leningrad fencing tournament, The Fencer sells its underdog tale – or maybe I’m just a soft touch when it comes to this particular subgenre – but smothers the nuance of its resistance narrative by hastily rushing towards a happy ending. It’s historically accurate, I understand, but cutting almost immediately from Endel’s darkest moment to his years-later redemption is an unfortunate, if understandable, mistake.