Raging Bull (1980) Director: Martin Scorsese
“Come on, hit me… Harder. Harder.”
Unlike some of his friends known as the “movie brats” of the 1970s (Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) by the late ’70s Martin Scorsese had fallen into a deep depression following the poor reception of New York, New York and fueled by drugs and self-loathing he collapsed into a dangerous pit of despair. He was tragically self-abusive, and ended up in the hospital after a drug overdose. Enter Robert De Niro who met his friend Scorsese in the hospital to pitch a new idea for a movie (he had just finished reading Jake LaMotta autobiography while filming The Godfather Part II). Scorsese was hesitant. He did not particularly care for sports and a film with this subject matter would no doubt be a trial to film, especially for someone struggling with his own demons, but he was eventually persuaded by De Niro to create the picture. Based on the life of Jake LaMotta, the middleweight boxing champion in the 1940s, Raging Bull is about a tortured, guilt-ridden, abusive brute who punishes everyone around him due to his own insecurities and anxieties. Like Taxi Driver, which also featured Scorsese collaborating with Robert De Niro and screenwriter Paul Schrader, Raging Bull offers a challenging character study that forces us to contemplate the darker side of humanity. Raging Bull is a poetic film that mines the depths of the human psyche, and as with many of his film’s it touches upon Scorsese’s troubled relationship with Catholicism (particularly in scenes of LaMotta’s revulsion for sexuality and his overwhelming paranoia for his wife’s infidelity). Raging Bull gives a highly memorable nod to Marlon Brando’s soliloquy in On The Waterfront (“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender, I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am”). Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Jake struggles with ennui and the notion that women are either chaste virgins or else whores –another familiar recurring theme throughout Scorsese’s filmography. To Jake, a woman is merely the object of sexual fantasy: perfect when being pursued, but defiled when possessed. This is Freud’s “Madonna-whore” complex. As a consequence, Jake has a flawed, wrathful, violent conception of masculinity which is driven by a low opinion of himself.
The film opens with a series of powerful slow-motion black and white shots in a boxing ring while De Niro punches the air overlaid by a powerful intermezzo by Pietro Mascagni (the film was shot in black and white partly because De Niro was wearing the wrong colored boxing gloves in the initial takes, but also the black and white style was employed to draw distinctions with other more conventional boxing movies like Rocky). This memorable imagery is contrasted with the degraded and masochistic rage of Jake LaMotta, whose only means of self-expression is through violence. He is a protagonist with whom we experience a combination of pity and disgust.
LaMotta becomes a successful boxer, fighting notables like Sugar Ray Robinson -he has the ability to absorb many punches without falling down. His brother, Joey (Joe Pesci) is the only person who stands beside LaMotta. He is married but he neglects his wife: he does not want a woman he can possess because he despises himself. One day outside a public pool he meets a teenage blonde girl named Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). They quickly strike up a romance but before they consummate their love, LaMotta quickly cuts it short in order to pour freezing water down his pants, bookended by Catholic iconography on the walls. Sex with Vickie will degrade her Madonna-esque purity. He is a man overcome by his own base, animalistic instincts, but who lacks both the wisdom and temperance to carry himself in a noble manner. And he is aware of his own lack of self-control. He is a glutton for punishment. At any rate, LaMotta soon marries Vickie and he grows mad with rage over false paranoia that she has been unfaithful to him simply by having conversations with other men. Scorsese brilliantly shows us this jealousy in brief scenes of her smiling and talking to various men. LaMotta takes this unbridled rage and unleashes it on people all around him, as well as fighting in the ring. The scenes of domestic violence are particularly uncomfortable to watch. At one point Vickie makes an offhand comment about LaMotta’s opponent, and he brutally destroys the man in a fight out of jealousy. Eventually, LaMotta loses his coveted boxing title to Sugar Ray Robinson in a rematch. As he is led out of the ring, LaMotta tells Robinson “You never got me down, Ray.”
Years later, we find him overweight, drinking, and living in Florida running a nightclub while performing terrible stand-up comedy. His life has become an operatic tragedy. Vickie enters and demands a divorce, and then LaMotta is arrested for introducing young teenage girls to men at his nightclub. He is taken away to jail where he bemoans his pitiable life. After serving his time, he attempts to reconcile with his brother but it is awkward, distant, and incomplete. The close of the film flashes back to LaMotta reciting the famous lines from On The Waterfront and pumping himself up for the next fight chanting “I’m the boss.. I’m the boss…”
This is an extraordinary performance from Robert De Niro (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor). He trained for the film under the tutelage of the real Jake LaMotta, and later De Niro truly sparred with both LaMotta and Joe Pesci during filming. De Niro accidentally broke one of Pesci’s ribs hence why he winces in pain in the final cut. In the later scenes of an aging LaMotta, Scorsese was genuinely concerned about De Niro’s health with his substantial weight gain. By all accounts it was a true to form portrait of the real Jake LaMotta, who lived to age 95 and died in 2017. Throughout his life, LaMotta was always willing to talk about his life and the movie. Martin Scorsese’s father briefly appears in Raging Bull, as he does in several other Scorsese films including Taxi Driver and Goodfellas.
While I find most boxing films to be tired and stagnant, Raging Bull is the rare exception perhaps because it is not so much a mere boxing movie as it is the complex portrait of a troubled man, and a meditation on the flaws within us all. This is a biographical picture done right. It is the example of a director at the height of his craft coupled with the right people, taking risks and creating something challenging and enduring. While I have often found that Scorsese’s later films tend to be more re-watchable (The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street and so on), his early films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are his best.