The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki

maki-rev The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki  (2016)    MUBI/Drama    RT: 92 minutes    No MPAA rating (male full frontal nudity, boxing violence)    Director: Juho Kuosmanen    Screenplay: Juho Kuosmanen and Mikko Myllylahti    Music: Laura Airola, Joonas Haavisto and Miika Snare    Cinematography: Jani-Petteri Passi    Release date: May 26, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff, John Bosco Jr., Joanna Haartti.      Spoken in Finnish w/English subtitles


The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki is a black-and-white movie about a real life boxer. All similarities to Raging Bull end there. Whereas Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece centered on a very unlikable person with character faults galore, Olli Maki (Lahti) is a nice guy and a good fellow. The Finnish boxer’s biggest fault is falling in love while training for a big match against American featherweight champ Davey Moore (Bosco). Love is an unnecessary distraction that could cost him the match that his manager Elis Ask (Milonoff) spent a lot of time and money (his own AND other people’s) putting together.

 hapi-olli-makiSet in 1962, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki opens with Maki renting a car of questionable functionality to take his girlfriend Raija (Airola) to a wedding. When the car conks out, he places her on the handlebars of a bicycle and uses pedal power to get them to the church on time. It’s clear Maki has feelings for Raija but he has bigger matters to deal with at the moment. That would be his upcoming fight against Moore.

 Raija accompanies Maki to Helsinki where Elis puts them up at his place (bunk beds in his children’s room). Elis is making a big deal about the match. Maki, a modest man by nature, isn’t comfortable with all the fuss and ado. He doesn’t like all the dinners and parties with their sponsors. He’s ill-at-ease with the documentary film crew Elis brings in to follow Maki through the training process. He has just two weeks to prepare for the match which includes losing enough to weight to meet the weight requirements for featherweight class. He’s distracted by his love for Raija who eventually returns home and won’t take his calls.

 Most sports movies concern whether or not the protagonist wins the big game or match, not The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki. Early on, Elis tells Maki about his days in the ring and how winning a championship match was “the happiest day of my life”. The day of the match against Moore (August 17, 1962) indeed turns out to be the happiest day of Maki’s life but not for the reason you might think.

 The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography gives The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki a strong note of realism. It was shot on 16mm B&W film stock; Kodak had to make more when the makers depleted all the film stock available in the US and Europe. The movie has a vintage look to it, kind of like a French New Wave film from the 60s. It sets exactly the right tone and mood inside sweaty gymnasiums and cramped apartments. Director Juho Kuosmanen, in his first feature film, makes excellent use of the natural landscapes. He’s so self-assured, you wouldn’t even know it’s a first for him.

 Lahti is very good as Olli Maki, a man whose modesty prevents him from doing any sort of grandstanding. When asked if he’ll win, he replies that he’ll do his best. It’s not the answer Elis wants him to give. In fact, he wants his fighter to do many things he’s not comfortable with. Elis claims to be doing all this for Maki but one can’t help but think he’s really doing it to stoke his own ego. It’s a costly endeavor though. At one point, his wife throws them out of their home because of all the money he’s spent on promoting the match. As Raija, Airola is great. She understands the painful choice she must make in order to help Maki win the fight.

 The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki is subtly powerful. It’s a minimalist piece that doesn’t rely on all the usual conventions of the sports movie genre. It looks at an event in sports history that not many non-fans would know anything about. But it’s not so much about the big match than it is about one the guys fighting in it, the underdog if you will. It has a unique kind of beauty to it. There’s a hint of sadness to it yet it also feels triumphant. It’s one of the season’s best films. 

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