First things first: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is not a sports film. It’s not that film about a plucky young underdog who sacrifices everything for a chance to take on the champ. Instead, it’s a film about a communist baker from the west of Finland who prefers a sensible dinner to crash dieting, and running about with a kite to mindless exercise. It is, in short, a film about someone who would much rather lose a match than miss out on the people and things he loves.
And it’s hardly a spoiler to say that, from the first we hear about it, we know that Olli doesn’t stand much chance of winning the first-ever championship boxing match to take place in Finland. Indeed, the more the film goes along, the more we find ourselves less bothered about its outcome and, like Olli, much more concerned with whether he’ll get to spend more time with his girlfriend, Raija.
Shot in a gorgeously grainy 16mm monochrome, the film’s visuals recall Finnish cinema touchstones from Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots to Pirjo Honkasalo’s recent Concrete Night. J-P Passi’s extensive documentary background gives his cinematography a remarkably precise observational style, one which frequently allows the viewer to stand back from the action and concentrate on the telling details which lend Jarkko Lahti’s portrayal of Olli such an incredible depth of character.
These small, captured moments are what this film is built upon, and they’re what Olli is there for as well. And, despite slipping into the background of history, his priorities would appear to have borne him out. Davey Moore, Olli’s opponent, died seven months later at the age of twenty-nine – the result of injuries sustained in the ring. His legacy came in the form of Bob Dylan’s early protest song, Who Killed Davey Moore?, and in changes to boxing safety legislation. Olli and Raija, on the other hand, appear in a brief cameo during the closing moments of the film.
Though subsequent historical events are never mentioned in the film itself, they serve as a salient summing up for a work which, in many ways – more than a sporting film, more even than a romance – is a curiously timely period piece about self-care. The film’s Finnish title, Hymyilevä mies, translates simply as Smiling Man. It is a label which Olli Mäki would doubtlessly prefer to the many others he might have had.