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Shooting a boxing drama in black and white might risk inviting comparison with the gold standard for that genre, Raging Bull. But Finnish first-time feature director Juho Kuosmanen’s captivating account of the 1962 world featherweight championship match between country baker Olli Maki and American titleholder Davey Moore is in a ring of its own. So gracefully does The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki sidestep the formulaic mold of struggle, perseverance and simple victory or defeat that it could almost be considered an anti-fight picture. Either way, the film’s delicate balance of humor, melancholy and sensitive human insight should ensure that it goes a few rounds on international specialty screens.
In addition to the considerable pleasures of the well-told real-life story — co-written by the director and Mikko Myllylahti — and the nuanced characterization of Jarkko Lahti in the title role, the movie is a small marvel of impeccable craftsmanship.
The period production and costume design are sharply detailed, from dated clothing in the provinces, still quaintly stuck in the 1950s, to the more sophisticated looks in Helsinki, where Sinatra is a style icon. (Love all those boxy little mid-century cars, too.) And from the countryside scenes, surrounded by vast forests and lakes, to the boxing-ring action, the decision to shoot in beautiful high-contrast black and white 16mm is both visually interesting and in keeping with news coverage of events that were heavily scrutinized at the time.
Kuosmanen’s characters don’t have the sublime lugubriousness of those of Aki Kaurismaki, Finland’s master observer of the souls of the luckless and downtrodden. But they do share a certain deadpan affectlessness, and like Kaurismaki, Kuosmanen is a humanist who steers clear of sentimentality. (Kaurismaki also has occasionally used black and white to great advantage, notably in 1992’s La Vie de Boheme.)
From the moment Olli is signed up by boxer-turned-manager Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff), the 26-year-old from Kokkola is groomed to be Finland’s next national hero. Never mind the challenger’s reservations about slimming down to featherweight class, or the fact that he has only 10 pro fights under his belt as opposed to the 64 undefeated matches of Moore (John Bosco Jr.).
While it’s immediately apparent that he doesn’t gravitate toward the spotlight, the diminutive Olli does what’s required of him without complaint, even posing for a men’s fashion campaign alongside a towering female model in one amusing scene. The arrival of documentary makers to chronicle Olli’s progress also yields low-key laughs as the two-person crew is ushered into the locker room while the boxing team is in the middle of a rowdy naked water fight. Their unselfconscious nudity, and its incongruity while the film project is being outlined, is typical of the movie’s unforced offbeat sensibility.
As the media circus intensifies, Olli grows increasingly uncomfortable. But the bigger issue is that the training regime is intruding on his more intimate experience of falling in love at the same time. An instant connection at a local wedding early on makes it clear that Olli and Raija (Oona Airola) are meant for each other. She’s warm and grounded, adjusting to his mounting celebrity even as she’s not the type to be swept up in the glamor. But when she starts feeling like a fifth wheel in Helsinki, and takes off back to rural Kokkola, Olli’s focus crumbles.
The consuming desire to be a winner is a defining element of just about every boxing movie. But there are times when Olli barely even seems to qualify as a striver. Instead, the conflict and poignancy stem from his wish first and foremost to be a man who lives with dignity and honesty, free to nourish his heart. The example of Elis’ marriage to an unhappy wife (Joanna Haartti) is another reason he won’t put Raija second to his career.
The fundamental ways in which Kuosmanen departs from the template of Rocky and its countless brethren about sparring underdogs up to and including Creed is given succinct illustration in the press conference during which Maki and Moore meet reporters together for the first time. Instead of the usual snarling display of macho rivalry, Olli halts that aggressive conversation before it starts by acknowledging his relative inexperience. He vows to do his best and states that if he loses, at least it will be to a worthy opponent. This is in keeping both with the movie’s gentle spirit and with a much more civilized era in pro sports.
While boxing historians probably know the fight’s outcome, most audiences will not, which makes the climactic clash and its tenderly anticlimactic follow-up scenes touching in unexpected ways.
The performances are faultless and unshowy throughout. To the filmmakers’ credit, even when he’s pushing Olli for partly selfish reasons, telling him that he picked the wrong time to fall in love, Elis is never turned into a reprehensible character. Milinoff makes his intense frustration almost endearing.
With a sweet smile and eyes full of kindness, Airola conveys the sense of a woman who knows exactly where she belongs in the world. Raija’s feelings for Olli are ingrained into every one of their scenes together, even if she is never going to be caught up in a big-city life she doesn’t want.
Unquestionably, though, the heart of the film is Lahti’s Olli Maki, a mild-mannered, self-effacing man whose inherent modesty makes him an imperfect fit for professional sports but a delightful character study. The movie’s most indelible image is not of him jumping rope or jabbing and bobbing in the ring but of him rescuing a kite stuck in a tree while on a training jog in the woods. Watching him run among the trees trailing the battered kite, far from his entourage, is a stirring moment of liberating triumph unlike any in a conventional boxing movie.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Aamu Film Company, in association with One Two Films, Film Vast, Tre Vanner Produktioner
Cast: Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff, Joanna Haartti, Esko Barquero, Elma Milonoff, Leimu Leisti, Hilma Milonoff, John Bosco Jr., Olli Rahkonen, Joonas Saartamo, Henrik Palosaari, Sam-Peter Hirvikangas, Antti Naakka, Niklas Hyvarinen
Director: Juho Kuosmanen
Screenwriters: Mikko Myllylahti, Juho Kuosmanen
Producer: Jussi Rantamaki
Director of photography: J-P Passi
Production designer: Kari Kankaanpaa
Costume designer: Sari Suominen
Editor: Jussi Rautaniemi
Casting: Anastasia Lobkovski
Sales: Les Films du Losange
Not rating, 92 minutes
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