About midway through a The Fencer it occurred to me: there are no movies about fencing. I mean, yes, there probably are, but I’ve never heard of them. It seems odd when you consider the one-on-one nature of the sport. Boxing, a similar, albeit infinitely more cinematic sport, has spawned approximately infinity billion movies, most of which look pretty similar to one another. But fencing? Nope. Just this one movie that, had I not been reviewing it, would’ve passed way under my radar.
The life of the boxer certainly lends itself to filmic storytelling as well. It takes a certain type of person to want to stand in a box and trade punches with another person. This doesn’t seem to be the case with fencing. Certainly fencing requires an equal amount of training, but it doesn’t seem like the sport attracts larger-than-life personalities in quite the same way. I could be wrong, but I reiterate: pretty much every movie ever made is about boxing while only one is about fencing.
So what can a fencing movie do to grab one’s attention? Well for starters it can be based on a true story. After that it’s just a matter of finding a proper tone. The Fencer succeeds at both. AAAAAAND I learned a history lesson to boot!
While under Nazi occupation during WWII, Estonian men were drafted into the German army. When the war ended and Stalin’s Soviet Union took over, these men were branded enemies of the state, and only those who managed to hide were able to avoid imprisonment and death at the hands of the secret police. The Fencer begins as Endel Nelis, one of the hunted men, arrives in Haapsalu, Estonia where he hopes to avoid recognition and capture. It’s a low-key life he seeks, and before long he’s teaching at a small school. He is given permission to start a sporting club and uses it as an opportunity to teach the kids his passion: Hopscotch. Just kidding. Fencing. He teaches them fencing.
This grabs the attention of the stuffy principal who thinks that fencing is not an appropriate sport to be teaching children. His reasoning comes from the turbulence of the times. Namely that breaking tradition during a time of repair could be seen as a political message. While you certainly can’t blame the guy for being cautious, he’s totally one of those dudes who thinks rock and roll is too loud. Well if it’s too loud, you’re too old, Teach! And wouldn’t you know it? These kids, many of them orphans, are finding fencing to be a lovely form of expression, so mean old Principal-pants takes it upon himself to investigate Endel’s background.
The Fencer is a finally light affair, which suits the viewing experience. While many cliches from a triumvirate of genres (sports, history, melodrama) are immediately apparent, the distinctly un-heightened way each is invoked makes it all a palatable delight. In the end it’s clear that fencing really isn’t that cinematic, but it doesn’t have to be. Had The Fencer tried to put too much of a shine on any of the depicted duels, it probably would have felt pretty silly.
This was the Finnish entry for the 88th Oscars, but it did not receive the nomination. It did, however, receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language film.
The Fencer is a minor film, but a very effective one that is well worth checking out.
Now who’s going to sign my petition to get a curling movie off the ground?
The Fencer opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.