There are two kinds of underdog boxing drama: those that end in against-all-odds glory, and those that end, happily or otherwise, in upheld underdog status. Viewers who aren’t aficionados of Finnish fisticuffs could check the history books in advance to see where “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki” fits in, but they hardly need to: A lyrical sense of bittersweet acceptance permeates freshman director Juho Kuosmanen’s marvelous sports biopic from its very first, perfectly composed frame. This vérité-style study of the eponymous fighter’s preparation for a home-turf title fight against a daunting American champ is less preoccupied with in-the-ring action than with the equally draining rigors of the publicity circuit. It punches its way into the upper ranks of cinematic pugilist portraits by virtue of its exquisite craft and a lead performance of heart-bruising melancholy by Jarkko Lahti.
A low-key historical snapshot of a relatively obscure Finnish sporting figure, shot on monochrome 16mm stock, may sound on paper like a non-starter for international distribution. Yet “Olli Mäki’s” warm, crinkled humanity, cockeyed humor and gorgeous, utterly immersive evocation of a less-distant-than-it-looks past exert a surprisingly universal arthouse pull — while its popular, well-deserved triumph in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition will further boost its appeal to international buyers.
The combination of fact-based, boxing-themed realism and vivid black-and-white imagery might tempt marketers and critical quote-mongers into “Raging Bull” comparisons, but this is a far smaller, more guardedly tender work. Its exactingly constructed period milieu and textured, luminous aesthetic — if any film can be termed “shimmeringly weathered,” this is the one — may actually put viewers more in mind of Pawel Pawlikowski’s recent, Oscar-winning “Ida” than any comparable sports picture.
From the film’s opening titles — precisely kerned and angled to fit the design sensibility of early-1960s Europe — onward, much of the film is styled to resemble a theatrical newsreel from the era. That might seem an overly mannered approach if it weren’t so elegantly apt on a narrative level: It’s the constant presence of a documentary film crew that further presses on the addled psyche of its protagonist, as he prepares for what looks to be at once the biggest and most hopeless opportunity of his career.
The film introduces us to Mäki at the age of 25, three years after he won the European lightweight title as an amateur. His subsequently spotty record (dealt a blow by his removal from Finland’s 1960 Olympic team) gets a long shot at permanent redemption when he’s offered a chance to compete in the first world title fight ever to be hosted in Helsinki. The catch, however, is that it requires him to drop to the featherweight division — prompting a significant weight-loss program atop an already punishing training regimen. Cracking the whip behind him is his unrelenting manager Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff), himself a former lightweight champ, who enforces Mäki’s reduced division as a kind of assertion of dominance over his protégé.
With the country in a flush of excitement over this major sporting showcase, Mäki is rapidly elevated to the status of national hero — a role that entails numerous tedious press conferences, glad-handing with Helsinki high society and ill-fitting advertising endorsements. That’s all anathema to the shy, self-effacing young fighter, who’d rather just be left alone with Raija (a delightful Oona Airola), the sweet, equally humble young woman for whom he falls head over heels at a wedding in their rural hometown of Kokkola — an extended set piece that opens the film in unexpectedly diffuse, socially perceptive fashion.
What’s especially cruel about this hype machine (adding insult to anticipated injury, as it were) is that hardly anyone expects Mäki to beat American champion Davey Moore (John Bosco Jr.), who is on an undefeated streak of 64 matches. Only Mäki himself seems able to admit this: “At least I won’t be losing to a bad fighter,” he mumbles in one press conference, to the pained exasperation of Ask. Though it’s entirely unsentimental about the outcome — not one inspirational platitude escapes from any character’s lips — Kuosmanen and Mikko Myllylahti’s script is fable-like in its celebration of modest self-acceptance over straining ambition, of emotional rewards over the spoils of victory.
Beautifully played by Lahti, whose tight, anxious face and progressively misshapen body betray an internal scream of stress, Mäki is among the most endearingly vulnerable boxers ever to spar on screen. Amid a mounting mood of high-pressure pessimism, his nervous romance with Raija is never too coyly or too cutely articulated — rather, it becomes as much an outlet of light and hope for the audience as it is for him. The “Happiest Day” of the title may refer to the day of the fight, but not ironically so; as Mäki gathers control of his feelings, the occasion comes to mean something else entirely to him.
Kuosmanen’s unassuming yet immaculate command of tone and form here would impress at any stage of his career, but it’s entirely remarkable in a first feature. J-P Passi’s brilliantly supple, tactile lensing and Jussi Rautaniemi’s clean, crisp cutting may speak to conventions of documentary and New Wave fiction filmmaking of the era, but at no point does “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki” feel like airless exercise or over-prettified pastiche. That said, design fetishists with a yen for Cold War kitsch should seek the film out for its production and costume design alone. Every advertising billboard, Dinky Toy-style car, stout-shouldered suit and salon-curled hairdo has been researched and recreated on screen in minute, besotted detail, yet nothing looks too new or too museum-plucked. Kuosmanen’s lovely debut has little time for easy nostalgia: It’s a period piece that shares its woebegone protagonist’s eye on better days to come.