The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies). Juho Kuosmanen. Finland/Sweden/Germany.
Still to this day, you can’t make a black-and-white boxing drama without immediately calling to mind Martin Scorsese’s revered Raging Bull. For an American film, you’d be betting against yourself, but for a Finnish feature debut with only a superficial connection to the 1980 Oscar winner, those expectations end up highlighting all the ways in which The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki becomes the antithesis of the tired American sports docudrama… perhaps in the same ways Scorsese tried to differentiate Raging Bull from that other beloved Hollywood boxing picture, Rocky.
Winner of the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes and Finland’s official submission for the Foreign-Language Academy Award (it, like my #1 film of 2016, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, unfortunately did not make the shortlist), this loose biopic follows the most famous boxer in Finland during the early 1960s, Olli Mäki (played with remarkable ease by Jarkko Lahti), who was shot into the national media spotlight when he was given the chance to fight against an undefeated American featherweight champion. With its familiar setup, the film manages to turn the ordinary and the mundane into poetry… instead of into the expected, nauseating brand of “inspirational” or “extraordinary.”
As an athlete, Mäki, a quiet and simple man, has gone through several low periods in his career, and there’s never a moment in the film where boxing ever feels like his great passion or even a low-hanging dream. In fact, he’d much rather spend his time outside of the ring riding bikes and goofing around with his girlfriend (Oona Airola). When attention from the media starts to mount, we start to see the mutual disinterest that’s shared between Mäki and Finland’s high society. He provides them with a bit of fanfare as the toast of the town, but they seem as indifferent to Mäki as a person as he is with their cameras and parties.
At its core, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is an unexpectedly spirited, bittersweet portrait of an ordinary man in love, dressed up as an underdog sports biopic of a little-known figure in Finnish history books. In just his first feature, Kuosmanen shows enormous promise behind the camera; there’s an effervescence to the stripped-down realism, captured magnificently on 16mm film, that recalls one of my other favorites of 2016, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released in the U.S. and the U.K. by MUBI later this spring.
With: Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff, Joanna Haartti, Esko Barquero, Elma Milonoff, Leimu Leisti, Hilma Milonoff, Olli Rahkonen, John Bosco Jr.