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Palm Springs International Film Festival opens with awards hopeful 'The Fencer'

The Palm Springs International Film Festival got started Friday night with two screenings of “The Fencer.” The festival’s typical opening-night venue at a local high school auditorium was unavailable due to renovations, so instead there was one screening at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Museum of Art and another at the local Camelot Theatres venue.

The festival’s artistic director, Helen du Toit, took the stage at the Camelot to explain about the evening’s multiple venues before introducing the film. She went on to say that Klaus Härö, the Finnish director of “The Fencer,” had been to the festival twice before and then extolled the recent successes of the night's film, which has been nominated for a Golden Globe and made the shortlist of nine for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

Taking the stage, Härö himself noted he had previously been to the festival in 2005 and 2010 and added, “Helen was just doing something we Finns would never do when she spoke so beautifully about me and about the film: She was raising expectations. We would never dream of doing that. We would come up here and say, 'I hope you all stay till the end.'

“So what I’m going to do now is raise the expectations when it comes to you,” he added, “and I’m going to say the fondest memories of all the festival audiences that I’ve been able to meet were in Palm Springs. So I’m looking forward to seeing you after the film, that is if you stay till the end.”

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Seeing how deftly the film won over an audience demonstrated why it has recently gained momentum with awards voters. In the movie, a young man with a mysterious past arrives in the small town of Haapsalu, Estonia, in the early 1950s. Meant to blend in anonymously as a teacher at a local school to avoid being noticed by Stalin’s secret police, Endel Nelis soon starts a fencing club for children that gains attention.

In the lead role, Estonian comedian Märt Avandi gives a dramatic performance of solid, understated charm. In supporting roles, Ursula Ratasepp as a fellow teacher and love interest and Liisa Koppel as the determined little girl who first asks Nelis to teach fencing both make strong impressions.

The cinematography by Tuomo Hutri has a burnished quality that gives the film a stately feel and the editing by Tamber Tasuja and Ueli Christen moves crisply, especially in the sequences of Nelis training the children. The tasteful score by Gert Wilden Jr. gives just the right amount of emotional propulsion.

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As festival programmer David Ansen said recently, “It’s very traditional filmmaking, in a good sense.”

Though the film is considered a Finnish production and is Finland’s entry for the Oscars, it was shot in Estonia in the Estonian language with some dialogue in Russian. Last year a film from Estonia, “Tangerines,” was nominated for the Oscar.

In an interview earlier this week, Härö said that on the multinational, multilingual set, “The working language was broken English.”

In wrapping up his introduction Friday night, Härö recalled the first time he read the script by Anna Heinämaa, and that even with the language issues and other production concerns, he was convinced it was a project he simply had to do.

“Reading the script for ‘The Fencer’ was like falling in love,” Härö said. ”You see the problems that are ahead, but you say we’ll deal with those later.”

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