What really counts
The Finnish film about an unusual world class boxer has already received many prizes. On 5 January, it also appears in German cinemas (review by Phil Butland)
A black and white film about boxing? Haven’t we been here before? Its now nearly 40 years since Martin Scorsese directed “Raging Bull” with Robert Niro as boorish, violent Jake LaMotta – an archetypal sports film, and one of the best in its genre.
One thing is clear. The Finnish boxer Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti), a contender for the World Championship in 1962, is and was no Jake LaMotta. The shy, intelligent baker from a small village boxed because it was his job. He gains no particular pleasure from the fighting or from the fame. He prefers to spend his time with his new girlfriend Raija (Oona Airola).
“The happiest day in the Life of Olli Mäki” is an unusual sports film, in that it contains very little sport. The “real life” Olli Mäki was a professional boxer for 15 years. In this film we see only one fight – and then only for a few minutes at the end of the film.
The rest of the film concentrates on the diligent and often painstakingly dull preparation for the bout: long jogging sessions and the attempt to reach the correct weight (including self-induced vomiting). The everyday life of an athlete has rarely been portrayed so realistically – or with such charm.
Ollis trainer Elis (Eero Milonoff) senses a great opportunity and drags Olli to photohootings, press conferences and big parties, where he is presented to prominent sponsors. Olli remains unimpressed and leaves the parties as soon as he can. He misses Raija and takes every opportunity to see her.
So why was August 17, 1962, the happiest day in Olli’s life? Because on this day, on which he also happened to fight for the world championship, he got engaged to Raija. At the end of the film, they walk together arm in arm, trying to imagine their future. As they pass an old couple, Raija asks “do you think we’ll be like them?” “Do you mean old?”, asks Olli. “Yes, and happy.” “Sure!” The old couple are played in the film by the real life Olli and Raija Mäki.
This does not mean that the film is somehow shallow and sentimental. Olli is a fighter, and the few fight scenes are superbly filmed. Its just that this is not the most important part of Olli’s life. The film shows the boxer as worker – he goes into the ring to make money so that he can lead a meaningful life elsewhere. The story of Olli’s life contains little of the hero worship, the celebration of competition and the nationalism that poison many sport films (and indeed sport as a whole).
The film’s lifeblood comes from the superlative performances by Airola, and particularly by Lahti, as simple people, whose lives suddenly attain great public significance. Mäki performs for the media circus without enthusiasm, but also without complaint – as he is a nice guy who is trying to ensure that everyone is happy.
In truth, the real Olli Mäki wasn’t just a pleasant individual – he was also a communist who refused to knock out his opponents as any further hurt was unnecessary. His lack of personal ambition came partly from this understanding of solidarity. Olli’s political conviction is mentioned in the film, but only in passing. It could have been interesting to analyse this further and to ask to what extent Mäki’s natural humility was an expression of his political ideas.
However director Juho Kuosmanen has decided to tell a different story in his debut film, although he is on record as seeing Mäki as a “working class hero”. This is, of course, his right, and the story that he does tell poses important questions about the relevance of sport and how a permanent state of competition affects athletes. This makes “The happiest day in the Life of Olli Mäki” not just a sports film like no other, but also a worthy successor to Scorsese’s masterpiece.
The original version of this preview appeared in German in marx21 magazine