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.
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.
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
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  to Somebody
Up There Likes Me ), he ended up crafting a radically odd movie which
is neither a conventional biopic nor a familiar sports saga.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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  pays homage). Paul Thomas Anderson has become the most distinguished
inheritor of this Scorsean legacy in American cinema.
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).
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
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
© Adrian Martin July 2001