Raging Bull – A Study of Jealousy

Another day another review.  Another Martin Scorcese film.  Perhaps THE Martin Scorcese film.

Raging Bull opened the 1980s.  Filmed in gritty black and white and shot in an authentic documentary style, this film is an artistic marvel.  Scorcese is at his best here, filling every frame with total, uncompromising power.

This is a truly brutal film.  Physically and emotionally brutal.  There are devastating scenes of emotional and physical abuse… make no mistake, this is not a popcorn flick.  This film is no Shutter Island.  In fact it shares more with a film I have reviewed previously, Taxi Driver.  For this film too is like an essay on relationships and violence.  This film is, more specifically, a study of jealousy.

Raging Bull is, at face value, a film about boxing.  However, it is actually nothing of the sort.  Let me explain.  Raging Bull tells the story of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta and his battles with the people around him, and most importantly the war with himself.  You see, Jake LaMotta is a jealous guy.  He is also an intensely unlike-able character.  Whereas, for all his faults, I could relate in many ways to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and find a modicum of  ‘goodness’ deep within,  Jake LaMotta is a more detestable prospect.  There are parallels between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and perhaps we are viewing portrayals of men with mental health issues.  These films are studies.  And for my money, Raging Bull is the ultimate character study.  Boxing takes a back seat.  Boxing is the vehicle used to forward the story, but this is not a boxing film.

I love the Rocky films.  I regard the first film in the series extremely highly.  And in some ways, Rocky wasn’t actually a film about boxing either.  Rocky was the story of a loveable loser who overcame the odds to make something of his personal life.  Raging Bull is the story of an unlovable loser who overcomes the odds stacked very much in his favour, to destroy himself.  I try to give nothing away in my reviews.  I want you to be able to watch the film and experience it for the ‘first time’.  Safe to say though that you can expect a rough ride with the story of Jake LaMotta.  The film is based on the memoir ‘written’ by LaMotta himself.  It has been adapted by Paul Schrader who also wrote Taxi Driver.  Between the recollections of LaMotta, the known facts, and the filter of Schrader’s very much opinionated mind we get one of the bleakest portrayals of a jealous man ever committed to celluloid.

The film’s opening titles are an amazing sequence combining classical music with a boxer in the ring.  The story itself is bookended by an older LaMotta, a cabaret LaMotta, going through the motions backstage at a comedy club.  This allows the flashback for the main film.  Robert De Niro plays LaMotta and this is probably De Niro’s best performance.  He is gripping, scary, brutal and awe-inspiring.  It is one of those ‘movie clichés’ that in preparing for the role, De Niro became so good at boxing that people suggested he could have won the middleweight title for real.  I don’t know about that… but I do know that I wouldn’t have wanted to have met Di Niro in a back alley in 1980!  (besides which, I would only have been 5 or something!!!).  This is truly De Niro’s film, his tour de force.  LaMotta’s intense violence is shocking.  De Niro’s playing of that violence is magnificent.  Who the hell could play a supporting role to this majesty of acting? Step forward one Joe Pesci.

Joe Pesci is absolutely outstanding in the role of LaMotta’s brother.  Anyone who has seen him in action in Casino or Goodfellas perhaps knows what to expect.  I think this is the first time Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci had worked together.  Joe Pesci is a frightening presence.  Even cowering in the huge shadow of LaMotta, Pesci’s character Joey is a scarily violent, knife-edge presence.  De Niro and Pesci are like a double act… a shocking double act.  In fact, for the two lead performances alone this film should be a 10 out of 10.  Hmmmm… 10 out of 10.  This film could be a 10 out of 10!

Brutal boxing scenes.  I haven’t even really mentioned the brutal boxing scenes.  These scenes of carnage litter the movie to advance the story – to show the onward march of LaMotta’s career.  They are filmed with so much trickery, so much magic. Scorcese is at the very top of his game.  The boxing is so real it hurts to watch.  The documentary style of cinematography is absolutely fitting for this film.  I have been watching the Blu-ray disc and I’ve got to say it looks superb.  The film grain and the searing black and white makes the film leap from the screen.

The scene where LaMotta asks his brother to punch him in the face is one of those classic moments of cinema.  10 out of 10 written all over it.  This film is a complete study of dysfunctional relationships, jealousy and violence.

So far so good… any negatives?  Hmmmm.  Well, I have to mention Cathy Moriarty as LaMotta’s abused wife Vicky.  I’ve just never been sure about her performance.  She’s stunning to look at… but, well… I just don’t know.  At the start of the film I think she’s supposed to be about 15.  I just don’t buy it.  Her acting seems out of sorts too.  I could draw comparisons to Cybil Shepherd in Taxi Driver – a similar kind of detached playing of a role.  But whereas I buy into Cybil Shepherd, I just remain unconvinced by Moriarty.  This is not a huge negative for there are points in the film where she excels.  I just don’t think she quite competes with De Niro and Pesci…. but then, realistically, who could?

Some of the make-up worn by De Niro throughout the film, the prosthetics perhaps rather than the make-up, to give him a beat up look do not always totally convince.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t gonna knock a mark off the score, and most of the time it looks excellent… it’s just that ‘sometimes’ it looks to me a little odd.

And… what is up with Joe Pesci’s hair?!?  Again, not enough to knock a mark off… but his hair is just mad!!!

I think my main concern with the film would be the pacing.  This is a slow film.  I like it.  I love it.  But I can imagine others finding it really tough going.  I would compare it to Bladerunner, a similarly slow film.  I love the building of layers in film.  I love the intensity created by having the freedom to linger on a subject.  The kind of lingering that was tolerated in 70s cinema.  But others won’t love the linger… they will just turn off.  Consider the type of films that you like.  If you like Transformers you will HATE Raging Bull!!!  I am not joking.  One of the best films of all time or not… you will HATE it!  For me, I would have liked the pace to have been tightened a little… but this is not a film you watch for fun.  This film is an educational experience!

Overall… this is a monumental film.  A work of art.  As I said with Taxi Driver… if you want to read the score as a 10 out of 10 then go ahead.  It really is that good.  However, due to Cathy Moriarty and the issues with pacing I have to knock two marks off.  Remember though… I use the whole scale.  I have no issue with giving a film 5 if it’s average.  I don’t know where the idea of only using the 7 – 10 range of a ten point scale came from?!?

Raging Bull – 8/10

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