Raging Bull (1980) Directed by Martin Scorsese
Raging Bull is great cinematic storytelling. It is visual narration at a high artistic level. It is admirable dedicated acting. Its cast and makers are all the best, most creative and professional people around.
It's black and white, it knowingly situates itself in the history of cinema while producing something entirely new out of a Hollywood favorite; a true story. Raging Bull is so good, it almost becomes boring.
It is a narrative storytelling classic to take an unsympathetic character and tell a story portraying him without judgment to any direction. There used to be an unpronounced preference for these stories because as we know, life is often ambiguous and art is the place to deal with that. Right now I feel there is a needed shift in arts taking place towards a more openly subjective work. Endless ambiguity can be distancing and uninvolving. Never-ending acceptance and understanding can be damaging to our sense of self.
This time I watched Raging Bull and hovered between being entertained, bored and disgusted. Jake La Motta, as played by De Niro, is a disturbing, controlling and violent person. I could not find anything to like in him. I don't have to like him – that's my realization. I don't even have to empathize or try to understand. There was entertainment: plot turns, great acting, fabulous period detail, admirable movie-making. Yet, I am left with the question SO WHAT, and that is not a very great mental place to be in after a film.
I recall walking home from an evening at a friends house many years ago (I was barely 20 years old). It was late, gone one in the morning. The streets were bare. All of a sudden a figure appeared walking towards me. In a flash, the stranger was thumping me in the face. He hit me quite a few times, very hard. Standing in shock, I heard a voice behind him telling him to go. Without a word or explanation for the attack, he left and I was left with a sore head. There was no reason for the attack, no provocation (as if that would justify the strangers actions).This kind of casual violence I've experienced a few times in my life. I've come across the type of person like the boxer Jake La Motta. A scary, no-messing, psychotic, paranoid, obsessive violent thug. Oh yeah, and I still like watching violent movies. Go figure?
Raging Bull is a deceptive film. The first few times I saw the picture, I was mistaken into thinking it was a real-life bio-pic. But as I've grown older, I've realized that along with Robert De Niro's fake nose, everything in this picture is super-stylized, almost superficial. The celebrated fight scenes, orchestrated and overblown. You'll find as much genius editing, interesting camera angles, and Scorsese's usual arsenal of tricks as in any one of his other pictures. De Niro as La Motta is a grotesque, both as a young lean boxer and as the middle aged man who has lost everything apart from his sense of humor. Yes, he is good in this role, but again, every word and action is exaggerated. Playing the part of his brother Joey, a restrained Joe Pesci matches De Niro here.
But that exaggeration and over-the-top performance from De Niro is what makes Raging Bull work. Yes, it's like Rocky with grit. It's still a soap opera. One of the powerful aspects of Scorsese's bio-pic is that we rarely see a character like La Motta dominate a film nowadays. Raging Bull stands up to scrutiny, it's one of the celebrated films that deserves its reputation. I've always found new things in the picture whenever I've seen it. Was it deliberate for Scorsese to record the dialogue so quietly? Was the reason to enhance the sound of the violent scenes? Or was it just bad sound? Or my last thoughts this time around adhere me to consider that this school of machismo and male dominance as portrayed on screen in Raging Bull is verging on parody and dated.