Exceptionally modest and unapologetically minor-key, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki homes in on the figure of the beta male who happens to excel at a sport he loves but increasingly finds himself at odds with the competitive mentality on which it operates. The small but seismic developmental stage that ensues—that is, the realization that personal fulfillment should be sought elsewhere, and that one’s engagement with the sport should be cut back—doesn’t necessarily resonate as screenwriting gold, and yet Juho Kuosmanen’s film commits wholeheartedly to this character study. In doing so, the pageantry and theatrics of the boxing world, the chosen arena of Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti), fall away as background noise.
Based on the events surrounding a 1962 world featherweight match in Helsinki between Mäki, the unlikely Finnish contender, and Davey Moore, the U.S defending champion, Kuosmanen’s film works simultaneously with and against the tropes of the boxing picture. It follows, in linear fashion, Mäki’s preparation for and eventual participation in the big fight, generating anticipation with its very narrative structure, but the stakes have less to do with whether or not he’ll come out victorious than with how exactly he will fail. It’s clear from his half-hearted practice sessions—not to mention the actual course of history—that he’s not skilled enough to beat the poised Moore, and it’s also apparent that his infatuation with his hometown sweetheart, Raija (Oona Airola), would be strong enough to deter him even if he were. So will he give it his all and put up a respectable fight, or will he make a fool of himself on his small country’s biggest stage?
The screenplay never belabors this question. Instead, Kuosmanen entrusts the film’s ambivalent tone to lead Lahti, a spry, hunched-back dead ringer for the real Mäki. Eyes fixed toward the ground, hands buried in pockets, and mouth sealed shut save for the occasional solicited smile, the actor affects the sleepy reticence of a recent shock victim, and Kuosmanen stages near-constant unwanted activity around him: the encouragements of Mäki’s overzealous trainer, Elis (Eero Milonoff); the attentions and inquiries of press and various industry cronies; and the hovering lenses of a documentary crew tasked with recording Mäki’s hopefully historic ascension to boxing greatness. The gap between the fanfare erected in support of this false icon and the waning personal investment of the icon himself calls to mind Michael Ritchie’s great political satire The Candidate, the frantic atmosphere of which is recapitulated here in a woozier, more muffled register.
With its 16mm black-and-white cinematography and lack of musical score, however, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki reaches further back into history for its primary cinematic touchstones, specifically to the grayscale neorealism of Ermanno Olmi and the Czech New Wave films, works which unhurriedly examined the plights of working-class everymen jostled around by forces of class and economics. It’s noted often in the dialogue that Mäki’s humble background is as a baker, and Elis repeatedly reminds him of the pitiful “backwoods” to which he will return if he fails to live up to the hype.
Alas, Kuosmanen places his sympathies squarely with the rube who’s hopelessly out of place in a globalized market. The handheld camera stays always at Lahti’s lower-than-average eye level, even partaking at times in the actor’s in-the-moment reactions, and the film’s few releases of visual showmanship correspond to Mäki’s regenerative retreats from the hustle-bustle: a gorgeous chiaroscuro shot of the shirtless boxer wading into chilly lake water after a bout in the steam room; a series of bicycle rides through the countryside with Raija, which find the camera ecstatically hurrying along.
Such moments of amorous bliss are as rare and short-lived in The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki as any stirrings of interpersonal conflict, which makes it a rather unorthodox love story. Olli and Raija sleep in separate bunk beds when she visits him in Helsinki, and they don’t even share a kiss until halfway through the film. She’s noticeably apathetic to boxing but wordlessly exudes support for his career regardless, and the one moment that might otherwise set off fireworks—Olli’s marriage proposal—unfolds at the tail end of a walk to a bus stop, with the suitor tossing off the big question just before boarding. As indelible an impression as Raija makes on Olli, this is principally a film set within the parameters of one man’s head, a sports tale in which the character building has almost nothing to do with the sport.