Finland’s Would-Be Boxing Hero
By Adam Cook
Olli Maki carried the hope of an entire nation. In 1962, the amateur turned professional boxer was poised to take on standing champ American Davey Moore, a milestone for Finnish boxing. But as Juho Kuosmanen’s wonderful film, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, shows us, this seemingly huge event was hardly of interest to Maki himself. Set up by his manager friend Elis, the fight was a serious mismatch. Moore’s record was outstanding, and surely would take on Maki no problem. To qualify for the fight, Elis downgrades Maki’s class to featherweight, forcing him to spend more energy on losing weight than actually preparing to fight.
For all Olli, this is all secondary, as he has fallen head over heels in love with his friend Raija, and that’s where his attention is directed. He’ll chase after her and duck out of training to do so, and as the match approaches, it’s clear that Elis is more interested in the fight than Olli.
His manager tells him that the day of the fight will be the happiest day of his life, and in a way, he’s not wrong.
Shot in B&W, the film immediately invites a comparison to Raging Bull, the best boxing movie of all time, and I think there’s a playful invitation to do so on the part of the director, even if this is a much lighter, modest movie. They both align as rare examples of the sports subgenre of films that seem somewhat disinterested in the sport itself nor in athletics, but in the humanity driving the story. Moreover, they both are films that distance themselves from glorifying the sport, perhaps even criticizing it — in the case of Bull, we see the unhealthy tendencies driving La Motta’s aggression, whereas in Maki, it’s the opposite, he’s a sensitive man distracted from the ring.
At the end of the day, this film is a love story, and a charmingly original one at that, with a romanticism rare in contemporary cinema at its core. Athletes are always articulated as being synonymous with their sport, they live and breathe their calling. But this film subverts such a simple-minded notion and shows us a star athlete at his peak on a world stage, utterly indifferent to his achievements and the high stakes in the ring. He’s a man with a heart, who cares about more than boxing. To call it anti-sports would be a bit much, as there isn’t an unkind bone in this film, but it’s a movement away from the capital-S sports film of yore and towards a more well-rounded way of looking at “heroes”. Olli Maki is a hero, albeit not a glorious one, for being an everyman with his priorities in order.
(The film is now playing until June 22 at the Vancity Theatre.)