Last night I watched Raging Bull, a 1980 Martin Scorsese black and white biopic starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Cathy Moriarty. De Niro plays Italian boxer Jake La Motta, a wild, paranoid man and a brutally effective fighter who for a time was the middle-weight champion of the world. The movie covers his rise and fall. It takes place mostly in New York City, but also covers other areas toward the end.
It’s one of the roughest movies you’ll ever see. La Motta seemed to win all his fights on pure toughness and endurance, letting his opponents punch him until they exhausted themselves, only to pummel them after it seemed he had taken an unendurable beating. Outside the ring, he was a terrible man. He verbally and physically abused his first wife and took up with the 15-year-old Vickie (Moriarty), whom he later made his second wife. As he rose in the boxing world his personal life increasingly fragmented. His paranoia led him to believe that everyone around him was betraying him. He turned against his brother-manager Joey (Pesci) and Vickie, the only two people in the world who loved him. After winning the championship belt he held on for a few years, but lost his drive in the face of his own dissatisfaction. His boxing status was taken away for good when, in one of the most graphic scenes in the ring facing Sugar Ray Robinson, he absorbed a remarkable amount of damage. Still, up against the ropes as he took punch after punch, he defiantly leered at his old rival Robinson saying “you never got me down Ray.”
After that the movie cuts to his retirement, where he’s pathetically attempting stand-up comedy and running a club in Miami. What little was left of his life collapses right there for us to see.
It is a remarkable performance by De Niro, inspired by the Brando of Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. He has an incredible energy throughout the movie, even when his character is a broken fat pig. Somehow everything he does seems to come from a pure, animal instinct, but also a uniquely narcissistic human consciousness at the same time. It’s incredible to watch how his face changes throughout. Pesci and Moriarty match him, defending him, loving him, but becoming increasingly incredulous and disgusted at each new low La Motta falls to.
Scorsese’s direction is brilliant. The blood and sweat and cramped endlessness of New York are all felt and much more. He shows us the beauty in each one of his characters. In many ways the movie appears to be a throwback in style, but it never feels dated. The one sequence in color is a passage-of-time interlude shot in super-8 imitation, somehow giving the horrible central character a nostalgic warmth.
One final thought: I was scrolling the IMDb comment boards on the movie and found a very interesting criticism. The author was writing in saying that the movie “lacked subtext.” Later in the comment that term is defined for us: “I’m not referring [sic] to story or things happening but to what makes a movie complete: a big idea from the director that is behind every plot point, every shot, every line… This film doesn’t have it.” I think that’s 100 percent true (although I reject the notion that movies are incomplete without a big idea) and it was something that struck me as well. It may be the only movie I’ve ever watched where not a single scene felt staged. There is certainly no “point” or “big idea” behind what happens. It’s a movie of life at its most awful extremes – violent, selfish, unthinking chaos without redemption or validation.
Photo: © 1980 – MGM