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Fencer, The

Music Box Films Home Entertainment // Unrated // April 10, 2018
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted July 4, 2018 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Sports dramas have this inherent poignancy that, more often than not, relies on two cinematic features for their success: either the effortless emotions of an underdog story, or the insights and unique context involved with depicting a sport that isn't so mainstream or regularly featured on the big screen. The options are starting to dry up, though, as there's only so many ways that the underdog story can be told and a finite number of unseen sports that can have a spotlight pointed on them. The Fencer slips in and manages to deliver a bit of both, depicting a post WWII-era youth sports club that resorts to the ancient art of sword-dueling in the absence of other athletic resources, revealing bits about the learning process involved with the sport, how its dangers are perceived, and how they factored into the political climate of USSR-occupied Estonia. While the maneuvers of its David vs. Goliath narrative might be familiar, the pacing, atmosphere, and raw spirit involved with bringing it to life mostly evades those recognizable traits.

In hopes of avoiding detection by Soviet's "secret army", ex-soldier Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi ) flees Leningrad for the small town of Haapsalu, Estonia, where he takes an instructor's position as the head of an athletic club for pre-teen children. Once there, he realizes that his post will involve bureaucracy from the school's principal and a lack of resources due to waning prioritization of the children's physical education, hinged more on keeping everyone under control and being good Soviets than enriching their lives. Frustrated, and with an athletic background of his own, Nelis decided to act on an idea that doesn't require much more than sticks and learned movements: to establish a fencing club for the children. The students' interest in the club ends up being more substantial than he had planned for, eventually leading them to grow interested in a competition taking place in … Leningrad. Ender Nelis is forced to choose whether he should risk his own well-being so the children might engage their ambitions and prove themselves.

The full authenticity of the recount might be disputable, but Endel Nelis was a real and esteemed fencing coach in Estonia, and The Fencer hopes to capture that semi-true story appeal with an almost docu-drama essence to the work. Austere, faded-color cinematography beautifully captures the sparseness of the school's halls and cramped domiciles of the Estonian town, which almost immediately surrenders to the energy of the children -- even during their first session -- as they start to embrace the physicality and artistry of the sport. The chronology of The Fencer can seem jumpy, advancing in time to progress the children's capabilities and interest levels, but this also lends immediacy to the meeting point between Endel's past and present. If there's a downside to the swift progression, it's that the attention paid to the students gets focused onto two individuals instead of an even dispersal across the whole fencing club, which can be significant when it comes to the film's themes about inspiring youth.

The Fencer zeroes in on depicting Endel Nelis and his impact upon the children, as well as the dilemmas involved in his establishment of the club and his decision about whether to compete in Leningrad. A spare, low-simmering emotional performance from Mart Avandi allows the instructor to take shape as a wounded, yet resolute byproduct of the pre-WWII era, someone who resolves their desire to retreat and attempt to life a normal life with sacrificing himself for the betterment of his pupils. While the pursuit for brevity persuades Nelis to transition and make choices with less effort than they probably should -- whether to teach children how to swordfight; whether to defy the school administration; whether to request supplies from across the border -- they also form into a heartening study of his traits. It's the relationship that forms with those two aforementioned students that become the film's expressive cornerstones: his bond with sweet, blond-haired Marta (a steadfast Liisa Koppel) spurs his desire to teach, and the pre-teen son of a local woman questions why a master fencer would be teaching them in the first place.

Director Klaus Haro does an admirable job of concealing the inevitability of The Fencer, but especially with this story's particular tempo, that's almost impossible to do. One can only hope that the fencing itself becomes engaging enough to hold interest in the throughline, and luckily the execution of the sport stays quick-witted and resourceful throughout, amplified by the immaculate photography that carefully observes the footwork, the lunges, and the space surrounding the opponents. Despite having seen this tale play out before in different contexts and characterizations -- Daniel LaRusso's angsty square-offs with the Cobra Kai; Rocky Balboa's rags-vs.-riches determination to brawl Apollo Creed -- The Fencer nails this sport's uniquely clever and delicate suspense once it reaches the competition phase in its penultimate act, less dramatic parrying and more swift reflexes and operating against the clock. Informed but not overburdened by the resolution of Eldel Nelis' flight from the Soviets, it lands blows as both rousing underdog fiction and a credible glimpse at fencing during a tense moment in history.

Video and Audio:

The sparseness of buildings, the vintage haze, and the emotions captured in both children and adults render a uniquely stunning visual experience in The Fencer, capably brought to standard-definition from Music Box Entertainment's 2.35:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced transfer Creams, wood shades, and dark browns of clothing are prominent here, and the subtle shifts in palette are immensely satisfying, lending naturality to Endel's cord sweater and to the almost mustard-shaded practice room. Skin tones fluctuate from a shade too pink to a shade too monotonously tan, but they respond quite well to pools of light and the intended light temperature of scenes. Details can be surprisingly strong considering this isn't a high-definition transfer, most notably in garments, the weave of fencing helmets, and the subtle sheen of metal -- often dull but always tactile -- in the swords. Contrast leans a little light and washed-out, but that seems to fit with the intended aesthetic, and it responds well to the desired tones of outdoor sequences. It's a beautiful film that looks pretty darn exceptional in this transfer.

Both 5.1 and 2.0 Estonian Dolby Digital tracks are available, and up until the final act's buzzers, footsteps, and taps of fencing swords against one another, there isn't a whole lot interesting going on with the surround design. The music very carefully elevates and alleviates mood throughout, and the clarity and midrange responsiveness creates a delightful atmosphere throughout. Dialogue remains well-balanced and nuanced in both higher-end and mid-range registries, while the surround design -- incredibly limited in terms of rear-channel activity at all -- stays free of distortion throughout. It's at the competition that things get a little … feistier: the clank of blades have sublime high-end clarity, the subtle thump of feet has natural heft alongside the music, and the harshness of impact buzzers are pointed but not obnoxiously so. The English subtitles are grammatically exceptional, and appear within the image itself.

Special Features:

Beyond a brief series of Director Video Commentaries (16x9) for five scenes from the film, Music Box have also included a fairly lengthy Interview with Director Klaus Haro (22:07, 16x9), recorded amid the Finnish Press Tour in 2015. It's a grateful, candid, relatively in-depth interview that mostly glosses over the "Why'd you want to do this?" part of the conversation in lieu of genuine discussion about crafting period films, navigating the Estonian language and completely new-to-him cast, the local popularity of Mart Avandi, and "having a point" with each location selected for the film. A nice, well-curated interview.

They've also included a Theatrical Trailer (1:44, 16x9).

Final Thoughts:

Few will be surprised by the straight trajectory of the story driving The Fencer, an underdog sports film through and through. What makes Klaus Haro's take on it distinctive and compelling can be found in fencing itself, how it informs those who practice it and how children adopting it as a skill and/or hobby could prove to be tricky depending on the era and geography. While additional depth to the characters and less of a foreseeable rhythm would've made it great, like this it's a well-made, substantive, and engrossing drama hinged on its melancholy historical texture and gorgeous depiction of the sport itself. Strongly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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