Who is Olli Mäki, and why should you care about the happiest day of his life? These might not seem like urgent questions if you don’t possess a wealth of knowledge concerning Finnish boxers active in the early 1960s, but co-writer/director Juho Kuosmanen’s answers prove nuanced and endearing. A hit at Cannes (where it won the Prix Un Certain Regard) and its native Finland (eight prizes at the Jussi Awards, including Best Film), The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki tells of the pugilist’s Rocky-like fight with the then-world champion. Like its subject, much of the film’s appeal comes from how humble and unassuming it is. This is among the least blustery biopics/underdog sports dramas you’re ever likely to see, so much so that it barely belongs to either genre — anyone unaware that the “Baker of Kokkola” is a real person might reasonably conclude that Kuosmanen had simply made a film about an amateur boxer who gets an unlikely opportunity after turning pro.
There’s no training montage (or any music at all, for that matter), and Kuosmanen never makes a villain of the reigning, defending, undisputed champion. Instead we see Mäki quietly attempt to become the best version of himself both in and outside the ring while even more quietly falling in love. (Also: a bunch of naked Finnish dudes blowing off steam by tooling around in the sauna.) Olli Mäki isn’t a knockout, but it does go the distance.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
Directed by Juho Kuosmanen
Opens April 21, Lincoln Plaza
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 18, 2017