Raging Bull

(Martin Scorsese, USA, 1980)


If there is one piece of so-called film industry wisdom that Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull was made to demolish, it is the idea that the central character of any story must be likeable – maybe flawed, temporarily, but ultimately likeable. Boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is the screen’s supreme anti-hero. He is indeed – despite his pained protest to the contrary near the end of the film – more like an animal than a man.


Jake does not noticeably grow in his degree of self-awareness in the course of events. Over and over, he foists himself upon people and makes a complete mess of things. He seems at once to hate the world, and also long for acceptance and praise from it. Jake’s personal, rigid sense of honour – particularly when it comes to the ethics of boxing – leaves him exposed and vulnerable in a world of compromise and corruption.


Raging Bull remains one of the most powerful works of contemporary cinema because it more closely resembles an open wound than a well-rounded or cleanly resolved story.


Its immense power and insight has grown since the time of its first release. Part of the secret of Raging Bull is that it never tells you, in any obvious way, what it’s truly about, what it really addresses. It shows us a fragment from the life of a real man – the Italian-American boxer LaMotta (1922-2017) – and simply asks us to observe, not to judge, the messy contradictions of his life. (The real LaMotta’s obdurate self-unawareness – and power of denial – seems to have extended to his experience of Raging Bull itself … which he appeared to take as a jolly compliment, a vanity-piece. Think of how you or I would feel if presented with such an unflattering screen self-portrait!)


It does well to recall what a UFO Raging Bull was when it first appeared over the landscape of American narrative cinema. Although Scorsese, with his usual cinephilic precision, revisited the great urban dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s (from Body and Soul [1947] to Somebody Up There Likes Me [1956]), he ended up crafting a radically odd movie which is neither a conventional biopic nor a familiar sports saga.


“The thing ain’t the ring, it’s the play”, recites a post-boxing-career Jake stumblingly, on a tawdry showbiz stage, in the opening scene. Taking these words to heart, Scorsese boldly minimises the ringside action, reducing LaMotta’s historic fights to brief, abstract smears of movement and light, or a series of stills, usually set to the mournful, elegiac music of the “Intermezzo” from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890).


The inherent brutality and ugliness of this sport, however, is never downplayed. Ultimately, the few glimpses of actual ringside action in the film are signs of a tormented, inner drama.


Scorsese is far more interested in LaMotta’s personal, intimate life, and the rather fatal form of play that happens there. But he gives us no glimpse into the boxer’s formative past – a welcome and unique subtraction from the typical, hackneyed, biopic formula. When we first encounter Jake on screen, he is already mired in the frightful torments of his condition – exiting from one disastrous relationship and entering another, sparring with his brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci) – and facing the dilemmas of maintaining his professional status.


As LaMotta, Robert De Niro gives the performance of his life. But his artistry is, at every point, inseparable from Scorsese’s – this is truly a magical collaboration.


Raging Bull marries seemingly opposed artistic tendencies. On the one hand, it is a gritty, realist film par excellence, training a sociologist’s eye onto determining factors of sex, race, class and religion. On the other hand, it is a poetic testament to an Everyman in deep crisis – a man whom Scorsese clearly pities and is somewhat revolted by, but also desperately identifies with. From such torn emotions and identifications a film classic was born.


In Scorsese’s cinema, the individual is the centre of the universe. His films invariably concentrate on a male hero and funnel themselves through his heightened perceptions, as in Taxi Driver (1976) or Bringing Out the Dead (1999). The world that these men inhabit is their privately fashioned hallucination or virtual reality, reflecting back to them their desires and (more usually) fears.


This is a primary aspect of Raging Bull. From the first moment that Jake spies Vicky (Cathy Moriarty), his wife-to-be, she moves (in slow motion and at strange angles) like his projected fantasy image. As their marriage deteriorates, Jake believes he sees signs of Vicky’s infidelity in her most innocent interactions with others in public.


What Jake cannot understand – which is just about everything – he attacks, turning his domestic hearth into the ultimate boxing ring. Raging Bull is a remarkable portrait of a man who is unable to draw any civilised borders around himself. His deranged impulses lead to immediate actions directed at those closest to him (as in the unforgettable scene where he stalks and bashes Vicky in their own home, to which the Australian film Chopper [2000] pays homage). Paul Thomas Anderson has become the most distinguished inheritor of this Scorsean legacy in American cinema.


Scorsese is fascinated by the workings of the human ego – and particularly by that traumatic moment when any stable sense of self begins to break down. The anti-heroes in his films are secure neither in themselves nor in their relationships with others. Gangs, couples, families, communities – all are fundamentally treacherous entities in his films, serving only to exacerbate the deep-seated pain of the individual. This is as true of the stately The Age of Innocence (1993) as it is of Goodfellas (1990) or Casino (1996).


Scorsese’s stroke of genius in Raging Bull is to map these essentially psychological problems onto the physical world, and especially bodily experience. Jake’s inability to contain his raw emotions is mirrored in the progressive bloating of his body. In a neat reversal of gender stereotypes, Jake becomes consumed by typically “feminine” anxieties over his weight, appearance and eating habits – leading to the alternation of neurotic, masochistic rituals of self-denial (particularly where sex is concerned) with irrational, equally self-hating binges. While Jake, in his dreadful domestic life, tries to violently enforce all the old rules of male and female behaviour, he is in fact completely consumed by the horror of his own body and its failings.


At the moment of its theatrical re-issue in 2001, there was a strange echo of Raging Bull in relation to the contemporaneous, fluffy hype around the movie version of Helen Fielding’s best-seller Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). Not only is that a tale concerning the modern woman’s obsession with weight, but much was made in the media of the time about Rene Zellwegger’s stacking on of 20 pounds for the role. De Niro went much further for Scorsese; he completely altered his body shape in the course of shooting, to show LaMotta as a young, lithe, beautiful man, and then as a gross, gone-to-seed has-been. The Things We Do For Art!


The film’s exploration of such dangerous, borderless, bodily states also extends to its very particular depiction of places (as Alain Masson in his Positif review from 1981 well pointed out). There is a deliberately limited number of place-types in the film – apartment homes, boxing rings, clubs, dressing rooms. Scorsese reduces each set to its essentials (a kitchen table, a boxing match lit by flash bulbs), so that each new example of a place-type is interchangeable with all its other instances. This gives the film a dreamlike, timeless, disquieting quality. When Jake finally becomes a low-level showbiz personality, he has merely swapped one stage for another.


As events progress, even the common distinctions between these place-types break down. A kitchen is like a boxing ring (as when Jake goads Joey into punching his stitches); a bathroom is like a dressing room (both being the site for Jake’s punishing purification rituals). No space can contain itself or remain within civil limits for very long: brawlers spill out of a club onto the street; a cab becomes the site for a vicious beating. Scorsese takes an almost sadistic delight in those moments of catastrophe when private quarrels become public spectacles.


It has been suggested (again by Masson, in his essay for Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s 1983 American Directors project)  that the Scorsese hero, at the deepest level of his soul, hates being a man like all other men – he longs, above all else, to be special, detached, privileged, revered, “the flight from one’s likeness being a definition of liberty”. Yet no main character in a Scorsese film remains on this Cloud 9 of specialness for very long. Usually, he comes crashing down to street level, where he must either go into hiding or die. And it is there, at rock bottom, that he finally confronts the conditions of his wretched life. Only the blessed child of Kundun (1997) comes to peaceful terms with his given nature.


Scorsese’s films – and this is the the paradox that makes his work so magnificent – attain sublime philosphical depth by staring long and hard at the filthiest, basest, most difficult and depressing facets of existence. In the life of this dumb animal LaMotta, he finds the outline of a basic human agony: while striving to be above others, we are continually reminded of our inseparable bond with and similiarity to them. The surrealist poet René Crevel once raged at the “monstrous and obscene membrane” of flesh which links all human beings – and Scorsese’s men could join him in that profane curse.


There is nothing airily conceptual about these themes in Raging Bull. Scorsese and his writers, Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, hone in on the central drama that brings the problem of being merely human vividly to life. As Scorsese remarked, “it’s a story of brothers” – two men who must always confront each other as uncomfortable mirror-images of their best and worst attributes. In the characters of Jake and Joey, as well as in the superb acting of De Niro and Pesci, we reach the utmost agony of this love/hate relationship – especially when Jake vainly begs forgiveness of Joey fatally late in the day.


If I have one reservation about Raging Bull, it concerns its final, ambiguous note. For some viewers – and, it would certainly seem, for Scorsese himself – it is a tale of redemption, of a man who finally comes to know himself and change his ways. For others, Jake is exactly the same creature at the end of the film as he is at the start, unknowing, driven and lost. Scorsese, to my mind, fails to make a persuasive case either way in the closing minutes of his portrait.


But this is a small flaw in a film so rich and absorbing. Raging Bull is an event-movie (in the truest sense of the term) that really needs the intricate texture of big-screen projection and the real clarity of multi-layered, multi-channel sound. Scorsese likes to take us right inside the strange worlds he creates, in all their intricate texture – all the better to expel us rudely at the end, battered but thoughtful.

MORE Scorsese: The Aviator, Cape Fear, The King of Comedy, The Blues, Rolling Thunder Revue, The Irishman, After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ

© Adrian Martin July 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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