"The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki" is a lovely piece of work, a sweet, warmly observed tale overlaid with just the right amount of Scandinavian melancholy, a combination that perfectly suits its quietly engaging protagonist.
Set in 1962 and inspired by a crucial moment in the life of a real-life Finnish boxer, "Olli Mäki" works wonders with a story that only sounds straight-ahead. Coming out of nowhere, this debut feature by Juho Kuosmanen won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes last year with its cinéma vérité-style storytelling and off-center sensibility.
In love with film, the culture of Finland, even love itself, "Olli Maki" benefits from some gorgeous black-and-white cinematography from director of photography Jani-Petteri Passi. Shot on 16mm Tri-X stock that existed in such small amounts that Kodak had to specially produce more, "Olli Mäki" has a crisp yet evocative look filled with so many memorable images that it makes you wish black-and-white was more alive and well as a visual choice.
The heart of a project like this has to be natural acting from its key players, and "Olli Mäki" is so effective in this regard that you soon forget you are not watching real people going about their lives.
The title character, convincingly played both in and out of the ring by Jarkko Lahti, is introduced taking a long trip to his rural home town to see Raija Janka, a young woman he's recently met.
Beautifully played by Oona Airola in her feature debut, Raija is a young woman with an intoxicating smile and a clear sense of herself. Their day together takes some delightful and unexpected turns — in a visually stunning shot, they travel to a wedding with Raija perched on the front of Olli's bicycle — but their growing feeling for each other trumps all, so much so that when Olli goes to Helsinki, Raiji goes along with him.
Though comments about an upcoming bout and questions about Olli's having to drop some pounds to qualify as a featherweight amusingly surface at the wedding, it's only when he is met by his manager, Elis Ask (veteran Finnish actor Eero Milonoff), in Finland's capital that Olli's situation becomes clear.
For this modest man, more at ease with children than adults and someone who literally wouldn't hurt a fly, is just two weeks away from the biggest fight of his career, a title fight with accomplished American fighter Davey Moore, the world champion and later the subject of Bob Dylan's song "Who Killed Davey Moore."
Ambitious manager Elis, himself an ex-fighter who has jumped through hoops to bring this fight to Helsinki, understandably wants Olli to focus on his preparations and on losing the pounds he needs to make weight. Which would seem perfectly logical, except that Olli has fallen in love.
Under the best of circumstances Olli, who would rather fly a kite by himself than mingle with the rich and famous, would not be up for the rounds of publicity and meetings with wealthy sponsors that the title fight entails.
But with Raija at least initially close by, Olli's attention is split between what he knows he should be doing to succeed at a craft he loves and has been working at his entire life and what his heart tells him to do.
This dilemma is obviously not an original one, but the treatment it's given in "Olli Maki" makes it seem like it is. The classic melancholy that haunts Olli as the nature of his conflict begins to close in on him ensures that things never get anywhere near overdone.
Most effective of all is the way director Kuosmanen, who co-wrote with Mikko Myllylahti, has created a film that is alive to the pleasures and difficulties of life in a way that constantly surprises us.
Speaking of the unexpected, keep your eye out for an old couple who amble through a scene near this film's end. Yes, it is the real Olli and Raija, walking off the screen and into our hearts.