Perhaps the heaviest of all popular film genres, boxing movies—from “Body and Soul” to “The Fighter,” “Rocky” to “Raging Bull”—are typically freighted with grim melodrama and masculine angst, typically positioning the boxer as a kind of pop-cult martyr, a world-class sufferer whose essential quality is his willingness to endure immense pain. The boxer is often a troubled soul who is able to channel his alienation and frustration with the modern world into the primitive space of the ring, where an ancient code—might makes right—still applies. It’s no coincidence that the scientifically-proven saddest movie in the world is a boxing flick, Franco Zeffirelli’s “The Champ”.
As it title suggests, director Juho Kuosmanen’s “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki,” about the real-life Finnish featherweight’s shot at the world title, is the opposite of all that, a lively, buoyant film completely free of the dour, hard-bitten asperity that typically characterizes the genre. In fact, although it revolves around Mäki’s 1962 title fight, the film is not really a boxing movie at all, but rather a sprightly love story that happens to involve a boxer.
For Mäki (Joonas Saartamo), the match and its attendant media fanfare, is largely an inconvenience, a constant barrage of photo shoots, fancy dinners, and endorsement obligations that keep him away from Raija, the girl he’s quickly falling in love with (Oona Airola). Mäki’s manager (Eero Milonoff) seems more concerned with Mäki dropping enough pounds to qualify as a featherweight than he is with the fight itself. For him, it’s all just an excuse to cash in.
Shot in sparkling 16mm black-and-white, Kuosmanen tells Mäki’s story with a bouncy, restless energy that simultaneously evokes the whirlwind of newfound fame and the dizzying force of new love. Kuosmanen’s camera, like his protagonist, is always moving, weaving through crowds, rarely subsiding for even a moment. This produces a restive effect that evokes the youthful exuberance of early Godard and Truffaut, an appropriate reference point given the film’s early-’60s setting.
Kuosmanen demonstrates a lot of spirit but never really digs deeper into his characters or the narrative to develop its themes. Instead, he’s mostly content to bounce around his vivacious actors without attempting to delve too deeply into them.Mostly, that approach works: Saartamo’s slightly comical insularity providing a nice counterpoint to Airola’s sheer ebullience. At a certain point, the story starts to circle itself agitatedly pacing—not unlike a fighter before the big fight—before finally arriving at its wonderfully understated conclusion.
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