Raging Bull (1980)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci
Synopsis: An emotionally self-destructive boxer’s journey through life, as the violence and temper that leads him to the top in the ring, destroys his life outside it.
Raging Bull follows the boxing career of Jake La Motta, a former holder of the World Middleweight title whose violent and self-destructive tendencies ensured that his tenure at the top was brief, and his relationship with those closest to him never less than troubled. It took some nerve on the part of director Martin Scorsese and leading man Robert De Niro to adapt La Motta’s autobiography, given that the man was as far removed from a sympathetic character as it is possible to get. La Motta is the villain of his own life, and while it’s refreshing that Raging Bull eschews the typical Hollywood tendency to show its biopic subjects in an unrelentingly positive light, La Motta is such a jerk throughout the movie that it’s never possible to feel any sympathy for him.
The film opens in the mid-1940s. La Motta (De Niro) is an up-and-coming prize fighter, a product of the harsh New York streets, whose refusal to yield to the ‘requests’ of the local mob boss (Nicholas Colasanto) prevents him from getting a crack at the world title. La Motta is managed by his younger brother Joey (Joe Pesci), and as his fight career progresses he abandons his shrewish wife for Vickie (Catherine Moriarty), a self-possessed teenager comfortable around mobsters and hoods. Eventually, La Motta swallows his pride and agrees to throw a fight for the mob in return for a crack at the title. But success in the ring spells the beginning of a self-destructive spiral which sees La Motta lose everything.
While boxing provides the backdrop to La Motta’s story, Raging Bull is no more a film about boxing than a movie about your life would be about your day job. The bruising bouts in the ring provide the perpetually angry and inarticulate La Motta with his only means of expression, whether it’s to destroy the looks of a rival his wife described as ‘good-looking’ or simply to demonstrate his physical superiority over other men (even when soundly defeated by Sugar Ray Leonard, a grotesquely battered La Motta brags to his vanquisher that he never managed to put him on the deck). Outside of the ring, Scorsese and co-writer Paul Schrader’s unflinching examination of the demons that torment La Motta provides the real meat for the story.
La Motta was a man plagued by such overwhelming insecurities that he was always destined to alienate himself from those who meant the most to him. In Vickie he saw the kind of woman — cool, blonde and gorgeous — who shouldn’t look twice at a battle-scarred bum like him, and so was driven to have her. Once he succeeded in having her, he felt that she was so far out of his league that he was unable to believe she could be faithful to him. Scorsese brilliantly conveys this suspicion and jealousy by the barely perceptible use of slow motion during a couple of point-of-view shots from La Motta’s perspective to demonstrate his heightened awareness of her actions and the added significance he attaches to her apparently innocent movements. Eventually, La Motta’s jealousy becomes so uncontrollable that he viciously beats his own brother on the flimsiest of evidence that Joey is cheating with his wife. La Motta’s lack of control or understanding about any aspect of his life ultimately results in his ending up as a bloated and pathetic parody of his former self, a bad stand-up comedian trading insults with hecklers in the down-at-heel joints in which he plays.
Robert De Niro gives probably his finest screen performance as the tortured pugilist. Without any hint of grandstanding, he inhabits completely the essence of La Motta. De Niro’s an intelligent man, but he’s entirely convincing as a man of limited intelligence whose interaction with the rest of the world is confined to essentially ‘f*** or fight.’ There’s a kind of bovine dullness to his portrayal. His La Motta views the world from beneath a Neanderthal brow, his lips parted, only ever a breath away from explosive violence. It’s a trick that generates an incredible level of tension in scenes like the one in which he questions his brother about his wife’s fidelity while trying to fix his television.
Raging Bull is a harsh and unforgiving examination of a deeply flawed and dislikeable man. Had it been made by a filmmaker any less talented than Martin Scorsese it might easily have been unwatchable, lacking as it does a recognisable hero figure. By the end of the film, when La Motta is a bloated and pathetic shambles reciting, without irony, Marlon Brando’s ‘contender’ speech from On the Waterfront, we are no closer to liking him than we were after the first ten minutes but we do, perhaps, have a better understanding of the demons that tormented him.
(Reviewed 5th August 2012)