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Non-Review Review: Raging Bull

I might disagree with the critical consensus that Raging Bull stands as Martin Scorsese’s crowning accomplishment, or even that it’s probably the best film of the eighties, but there’s no denying that it’s a shockingly powerful piece of cinema. The fact that Scorsese was originally reluctant to direct what had become a passion project for Robert DeNiro just makes the movie’s status as a masterpiece of modern cinema all the more ironic, as the film seems to play like a pitch perfect symphony, each of its many separate elements feeding perfectly into one another to create a whole that is far greater than its incredibly brilliant constituent elements.

The portrait of the boxer as a young man...

Watching it now, older than I was when I first saw it, it’s amazing how adept Scorsese is at speaking the language of cinema. Strangely, for a boxing movie, it feels like Raging Bull is constructed by reference to classic films, each informing and adding poignancy and depth to the saga of Jake LaMotta. Even before he starts quoting Tennessee Williams, DeNiro’s portrayal feels like a recognisable homage to Brando. The domestic abuse sequences reminded me of The Godfather, as an abused wife shelters herself in the bathroom. (Although Scorsese follows the abuser in there.)

It’s hard not to hear the faint whisper of Somewhere Over The Rainbow in the film’s score, compiled by Scorsese from a rich variety of sources. Scorsese apparently opted to film the movie in black-and-white after the first footage came back, and he disliked the colour fading, but the crisp contrast conjures up other images and ideas. With very limited splashes of colour (the title of the movie, a short selection of home videos), it seems that Jake LaMotta occupies a world that could exist in colour. It just doesn’t for him. In a way, it brings the opening dreary Kansas scenes from The Wizard of Oz to mind, although it seems Jake never gets a chance to visit anywhere as magical as Oz. He’s just stuck in a greyed-out version of reality.

On the ropes...

While Scorsese’s fantastic direction elevates the movie to the status of a classic, Robert DeNiro is the movie’s heart. Scorsese is tasked with constructing a movie around the actor’s passion project and his powerhouse performance. Scorsese constructs the best possible film around that performance, but DeNiro must provide the core of the film. As beautiful as Scorsese makes it look, and as much as the director may pour his very essence into the film, it can’t work without a sterling central performance.

I’m not sure I would label it as the best performance of DeNiro’s career, but it’s astounding. There are actors who will work their entire lives and neversee a peak like this. DeNiro was apparently motivated to get the film made while reading the book, and pushed passionately for it to be developed as a project by Scorsese. Far more educated and astute commentators than myself have explored DeNiro’s process, what drew him to the role and how much of himself he may have channelled into the final production, but it a stunning piece of work. It was a crime that Scorsese didn’t take home the Oscar for his work on the film, but at least DeNiro was recognised by his peers.

Punchy drama...

The fascinating thing about Raging Bull is how utterly compelling Jake LaMotta is as a protagonist, even when he’s a character that we strongly dislike. He’s dismissed as a “crazy animal” by his neighbour, Larry, and it seems like he’s trying to shrug off that reputation his entire life. “I’m not an animal,” he mumbles incoherently in the dark towards the end of the film, and it’s telling that his career after leaving the ring sees the boxer attempting to reinvent himself as a renaissance man. Early on, he’s a stand-up comedian working on his own material. When that doesn’t work, he scales back his ambition, but he still tries to present himself as more than just a piece of meat; it’s an actor reading monologues written by others.

“He’s got a head like concrete,”the local gangster, Sal, remarks of the fighter. He’s incredibly aggressive in the arena, and brutal, but without the canny intelligence necessary to survive in the world outside the boxing ring. He doesn’t make friends, he doesn’t cooperate, he refuses to acknowledge that – if he wants to succeed as a boxer – he needs help. Even when he grudgingly does a mafia boss a favour, he isn’t sharp enough to do it with grace, instead staging his fall so poorly that it opens a D.A. investigation.

Who nose, eh?

There’s a lot of fascinating resentment to LaMotta, and I think that’s how DeNiro so brilliantly channels Brando, casting LaMotta as the same sort of beaten-down figure who feels like the world never gave him what he deserved. “I ain’t never gonna get a chance to fight Joe Lewis,” he complains, reminding the audience’s of Brando’s “contender” monologue about “an up-and-comer who is now a down-and-outer.” Later on, his brother actually uses the word while talking to his wife, “He’s just been a contender too long. He’s gonna get his shot.”

It doesn’t matter what Jake accomplishes, he’s still going to have more to prove. Even his gold belt is nothing but an expensive trinket to be pawned when he needs easy cash – and he can’t even do that right. Jake can’t abide existence outside the simplicity of the ring. He can’t even comprehend how he could fail to win a fight were he knocked out the other guy, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the sport around the brutal beatings. “I knocked him down,” he observes. “I don’t know what else I gotta do.” He abdicates responsibility for his own actions. When he puts on weight, it isn’t his own fault – it’s his brother Joey who messed up. “You’re supposed to be my manager!”he complains.

Don't beat yourself up over it...

For Jake, the boxing ring allows him the chance to pour out all the blue-collar rage and violence in his being out on to the mat, where the blood can soak into the ropes or splash over the audience. Boxing affords him a socially acceptable opportunity to indulge his carnal nature, and to gives that inner bitterness an outlet – both in giving and receiving beatings. Scorsese returns to the image of ice water, used to numb various parts of Jake’s anatomy, as if to put his frustrations to rest until they can be unleashed. He starves himself of sex before the fight, linking his own sexual and violent impulses. “You said never to touch you before a fight,” his wife claims. “You’ve been good for two weeks.” That’s two weeks out pent-up frustrations and fury released in a concentrated dose.

There’s an obvious connection to be made between LaMotta and any artist, who channels their destructive tendencies into an artform. The pre-production of the film has been extensively documented, but I think it’s fair to say that both Scorsese and DeNiro were probably mirroring their own process in LaMotta, giving his rages and his frustrations that much more potency. Both men were struggling in the lead-in to production of that film, and I think you can see at least some of that in the finished product. Scorsese even claimed that he was considering retiring after the film was released (if it had turned out badly).

DeNiro was more than just a contender...

More than that, though, I think that Scorsese and DeNiro find something almost poetic in Jake’s poorly-formulated attempts at redemption. Unlike most boxing movies, the pair don’t just focus on the capacity to release pent-up fury in the ring, but also focus on the aspect of self-flagellation to boxing, the knowledge that the participant will receive a beating, no matter how hard they fight. Many boxing movies portray that beating as a necessary part of the sport, leading to the triumphant climax. Instead, DeNiro and Scorsese argue that the self-harm-by-proxy is an essential part of the sport.

Jake seems to take his beatings as some sort of self-punishment. Early on, after an explosive domestic row, he urges his brother to hit him. “Harder! Harder!” Joey makes as much sense of this as anyone else does, laying into his brother who provokes him. “What are you trying to prove?” he asks. “What does it prove?” Jake is a solidly unlikable central protagonist, but he’s granted a sense of pathosby the mere fact that he seems to realise this.

A lover and a fighter...

“I’ve done a lot of bad things, Joey,” he tells his brother after a fight. “Maybe it’s coming back to me.” While Jake lacks the will to change his ways, he at least acknowledges the flawed nature of his character. Realising that he should change and being completely unable to grants him a sense of tragedy, and it’s appropriate that Jake ends up reading from Shakespeare in seedy nightclubs. We hate him, and we loathe him, but we understand him and – to a certain extent – we pity him. He’s a terrible human beings, but he’s also somebody who we feel sorry for.

Scorsese brings together a solid supporting cast, with Joe Pesci deserving special praise as Jake’s brother, Joey. In hindsight, it seems like Pesci is playing against type, as it’s strange to see the actor playing the relatively well-balanced member of a duo. (That said, Joey does have a little bit of his brother in him, as we see during one brutal sequence.) Scorsese has pulled together a fabulous ensemble including Frank Vincent and Cathy Moriarty, who never quite developed to the potential promised here.

Fist first...

Raging Bull is a classic, not just of its genre or its era, I think it’s a movie that has stood the test of time and genuinely deserves the recognition that it has earned. While I’d hesitate to describe it as the best work in either DeNiro or Scorsese’s impressive filmographies, it’s still a masterpiece of cinema.

2 Responses

  1. Utterly magnificant. Its a shame my generation don’t appreciate movies like these : /

    • I think we do. I hope that television keeps them alive, and that young film fans would be inspired to seek them out. I’d actually love to see more film included on the English courses in high school and secondary schools, as a way of engaging with kids.

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