Robert De Niro takes to the ring in Scorsese’s marvellous Raging Bull
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro (Jake LaMotta), Joe Pesci (Joey LaMotta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie LaMotta), Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como), Theresa Saldana (Lenora LaMotta), Frank Vincent (Salvy Batts), Lori Anne Flax (Irma LaMotta)
On the surface, Raging Bull seems an unusual topic for Scorsese. A sports biopic? For this, the least sports-engaged director in Hollywood? Even in Scorsese’s most masculine works, sports are always noticeable for their absence. But Raging Bull is a masterpiece, a film whose legacy has seen it named as the greatest film of the 1980s, showcasing possibly Robert De Niro’s most famous performance. A brilliant combination of art, searing personal drama and boxing, Raging Bull may not always be the easiest watch in the world, but it’s a scintillating piece of cinema.
Opening in 1964, we see the overweight, ageing Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) preparing for a comic stand-up routine. From there, the film flashes back to the younger Jake in the ring, with the film following LaMotta’s boxing career. However, the real drama is in his out-of-the-ring relationships, with his brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci) and his second, younger, wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). LaMotta inside the ring is a bull, a man who can take unbelievable levels of punishment. Outside the ring though he is a fragile, paranoid, self-loathing man with a sharp self-destructive streak, whose envy and jealousy systematically destroys every relationship he touches.
Watching the film, its clear Scorsese knows very little about boxing but fortunately he knows everything about filmmaking. Raging Bull is a marvel, a superbly made and directed marvel. Scorsese’s triumphant decision was to shoot the film in black-and-white (some truly beautiful work from Michael Chapman). This gives the film both the classic, gorgeous feel of a 1940s Hollywood movie, but also allows the boxing matches themselves to take on an almost impressionistic artistry, with powerfully emotive monochrome images. The photography also creates a stark, documentary like sense of reality for the many scenes of domestic disharmony and violence, while later shots brilliantly allow LaMotta (lost in self-loathing and disgust) to almost disappear into the inky darkness of the frame. Raging Bull would be half the film it is, if it was in full colour.
Recovering from a cocaine addiction that nearly killed him, Scorsese was intimately familiar with self-destruction – and its perhaps this that drew him towards LaMotta’s jealousy, possibly the film’s major theme. LaMotta is a self-loathing individual, who sees little value in himself, who treats pummellings in the ring like just punishments and believes everyone is betraying him. It’s one of the finest films about the green-eyed monster ever made. Obsessed with his younger wife – whom LaMotta first encounters at age 15 and whom he marries as soon as she is legal – LaMotta also earnestly believes she is sleeping with every man around. It’s clear that these paranoid fantasies stem from his own disgust at himself, LaMotta’s own conviction that there is nothing of value in him.
It’s this jealousy that really destroys LaMotta, his trigger-happy temper seeing him able to switch on an instant from a calm – but monomaniacal – insistence that he just wants to know the truth about his wife, to indiscriminate violence. LaMotta is an impulsive, excessive creature who does everything to a huge degree, from doubting his wife, to shovelling food into his guts. Scorsese’s camerawork – particularly it’s La Dolce Vitaish love of Cathy Moriarty – reflects LaMotta’s internal dysfunction. It worships Moriarty in the same way LaMotta does, but also reflects his obsessive possessiveness.
All of this is further captured in Robert De Niro’s iconic performance. De Niro won the Oscar for this stunning tour de force. Raging Bull became almost as famous for De Niro’s all-consuming preparation: he trained for months to achieve the physique and skill of a professional boxer (he even entered some professional bouts, winning two out of three). He then went completely the other way, the entire film going on a four month hiatus while De Niro went on an eating tour around Italy to pile on the pounds for the ageing, overweight LaMotta. At the time it seemed like no other actor had gone to such levels.
This focus on De Niro’s preparation sometimes obscures in the mind the genius of the actual performance, as if we have almost been blinded by the training and technique behind it. De Niro’s energy, his fury, his intelligent understanding of the fractured mind of the paranoid brilliantly brings LaMotta to life. So intense is the actor’s understanding of the disgust that lies at the heart of LaMotta’s personality that, even at his worst, the man is never completely unsympathetic. De Niro rages through scenes of jealous outbursts and violence, but he also has a childish gentleness of the man unable to understand the world around him, twice in the film collapsing into bursts of affecting tears. The older LaMotta is perhaps wiser, but just as inarticulate in emotions as his younger version and as unable to fix the damage. It’s a masterful performance, a physical and emotional tour-de-force.
De Niro also worked closely on the choreography of the boxing scenes, which allowed Scorsese the freedom to shoot these with an imagination and brilliance that had never been seen before. Each fight has its own unique feel, with Scorsese understanding that this sport is a neat parallel for how LaMotta sees life, a series of brutal clashes with pride and self-regard on the line. Scorsese’s fights are elemental clashes – the soundtrack frequently uses slowed sounds to create an animalistic roar.
The camera is frequently thrown into the ring with the pugilist – and LaMotta here is really more of a pugilist than a boxer, there is very little sense of tactics – with low angles and tight camerawork. Scorsese puts the camera – and the viewer – into the ring, making us part of the fights. Every punch and blow carries impact, and this is perhaps the most blood drenched boxing film in history, with the darkened liquid covering the faces of the fighters and dripping from the ropes of the ring. The fights reflect LaMotta’s mood, with one late fight seeming like an almost medieval battle, mist rolling in and the fighters flying at each other with a reckless abandon. There is nothing romantic about boxing here, it’s a grimy reality of violence with a purpose and brute strength, endurance challenges that only the strongest can emerge from.
LaMotta’s confidence and mastery of the ring is contrasted throughout with his lack of nous and understanding in the real world, and his ability to destroy everything he touches. Joe Pesci excels as his supportive brother who realises far too late the uncontrollable anger at the heart of this fighter, while Cathy Moriarty is also excellent as a young woman whose only real mistake is to want to live some part of her own life. Scorsese charts LaMotta’s destruction of both of these relationships, culminating in the washed up boxer pounding the walls of a jail cell weeping and screaming “Why! Why! Why!”, hatred for his self-destruction dripping from every pore.
Raging Bull looks unlike any other boxing film, instead like a perfectly formed art piece, its soundtrack full of classical tunes and its photography adjusting between the beauty of neo-realism and the cold realities of documentary film making. It’s superb, a masterful film, a work of art and also a profound understanding of the destructive impact of jealousy and self-loathing. Showcasing career defining work from De Niro, it’s no wonder this is still hailed as the greatest film of the 1980s and one of the greatest of all time.