Sorry for not posting this on Monday. It’s been kind of a busy week for me, but everything should be back to normal now.
As one of director Martin Scorsese’s best films, it seems surprising today that Raging Bull (1980) was initially met with mixed reviews, and that a poor marketing campaign caused it to fail at the box office. In fact, it’s taken quite a while for it to truly gain the recognition it deserves. It was nearly a decade before critics began to really view it as a modern classic, and almost two more before the American Film Institute finally named it the fourth greatest American film of all time in 2007. In many ways, Raging Bull represents the first and, to this day, most definitive realization of director Martin Scorsese’s creative potential and cinematic vision.
The story follows the life of Jake La Motta, a real-life boxer and former middleweight champion portrayed in the movie by Robert De Niro. The role earned him his second Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. His transformation from a taut, muscular boxer in La Motta’s early days to an overweight, pathetic has-been as he gets older is mesmerizing, to say the least. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen an actor in any other movie devote himself to his craft as physically as De Niro does in Raging Bull.
While the film’s boxing scenes are predictably (although not by any means uninterestingly) brutal, the most unsettling violence occurs outside of the ring. In fact, La Motta might even be more violent in his everyday life than he is as a professional fighter. His own insecurities lead to constant fights with his family, and his rages can materialize out of nowhere in less than a moment’s notice. In one scene, convinced that his steak has been overcooked, he suddenly explodes and overturns the kitchen table; in another, he smashes down his own bathroom door in order to get at his wife (Cathy Moriarty). His paranoia about her fidelity eventually alienates him from his brother (Joe Pesci) as well, bringing the strongest and most important relationship in his life to an end.
Even as he becomes more violent at home, though, La Motta begins to lose his edge in the ring. He doesn’t put up much of a fight at all in his final bout, losing the middleweight title to longtime rival Sugar Ray Robinson. La Motta’s life after boxing is mildly horrifying to watch – having gained considerable weight, he operates a sleazy nightclub and tours the country as a painfully unfunny stand-up comedian. Perhaps saddest of all, he continues to view himself as the fighter and celebrity that he once was.
All of Scorsese’s signature directing techniques are here, from his constantly, often imperceptibly, moving camera to his use of popular music in the soundtrack. Shot in black and white, though, Raging Bull is unique to much of Scorsese’s work in its wholehearted devotion to the time period in which it takes place. However, that doesn’t stop him from placing color in a few places that contribute to the film’s meaning.
The main title, for instance – as you can see in the theatrical poster above – fills the frame with bold, blood-red letters when it appears at the beginning of the movie, instantly communicating to the audience that the story about to begin is one that will be characterized by both violence and anger. And while it is both of these things, what ultimately elevates Raging Bull to a higher cinematic level is not just the interesting nature of La Motta’s story, but the exceptional nuance that Scorsese and De Niro inflect upon the character along the way.