Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
Robert De Niro (Jake La Motta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie La Motta), Joe Pesci (Joey), Frank Vincent (Salvy). Screenplay by Paul Schrader and Madrik Martin. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rating: 18. Running time: 129 minutes.
Raging Bull is better than GoodFellas, Taxi Driver and any other Scorsese film, and as such it is not only his masterpiece, but in my eyes easily one of the very best films ever made. Like all of his films, it is an exploration of a man’s tormented soul. But the difference is that Raging Bull plays on the real middleweight champion Jake La Motta’s life of self-destruction, masochism and paranoia in a way that elevates it above all other character studies ever put on celluloid. This is the story of a man so dominant of his wife that he explodes with anger when she does the slightest household chore wrong. So shallow and lustful of women that he knows who he wants his next one to be before he’s even spoken to her. So fearful of that said woman’s adultery and betrayal of him, that he beats her and then his brother within an inch of his life at the slightest suggestion of the possibility of an affair between them. And this is a brother that is also his best friend, boxing manager and even in a way his guardian. Jake is so ashamed of his life out of the ring that he allows himself to be beaten within it, yet refuses to be knocked down, however much pain he sadistically allows to be inflicted upon him.
This man is embodied astonishingly by De Niro, who is about as far from the skinny schizophrenic Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver as is superhumanly possible. Not only is the physical transformation shocking, but just how convincingly aggressive and hotheaded Jake appears to us. He’s a terrible, terrible man, and he makes Raging Bull painful, even agonising to watch and to think that it’s real. The crisp black and white visuals (never grey) only serve to sadden the tone, as does the classical music that sounds so tragic. We only see a five minute montage in colour, and that is of the small period of happiness in Jake’s life: when he first marries, and the relationship is sufficiently young and fresh to mean he’s not self-destructive, unlike the way he was for most of his life and thus for what we predominantly see in the film.
Something also needs to be said about the boxing scenes, for whilst Raging Bull is certainly not about them in the same way it is about Jake’s life, they are perfected to be powerful in a way it would be appalling not to recognise. They provide two of Scorsese’s great shots, which he drew inspiration for from the fights he himself attended in preparation for creating the atmosphere of a match in his film: the first is Jake’s lower legs and knees shaking under the weight of the blows he’s receiving to his head; the second is the blood dripping from the ropes, long after the fight has finished. They are both incredibly eerie, and are dropped into fight scenes in which the camera is always within the ring, moving and switching direction as much as the men themselves are. In fact, the camera swings violently with their fists and slowly falls with their bodies. It even follows the blood as it flies from their mouths into the crowd.
At the end, after we watch Jake prepare for a pitifully poor stand-up set in his later life, by monotonously and heartlessly reciting Marlon Brando’s speech in On The Waterfront, about how he could have been somebody, could have been a contender, the camera fades out and we’re left with a Bible verse. It is not to do with the film as such, but moreso with Scorsese’s own development as a filmmaker and rise to being the absolute master he now is. It’s dedicated to his film teacher, and it quotes a man who when asked to testify against Jesus, says that all he knows is this: once he was blind, and now he can see. All I can tell you is this: anyone wanting their eyes to be opened to the power of acting and the power of cinema, they should watch its greatest product. That is undoubtedly Raging Bull.
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