"The thing ain't the ring it's the stage, so give me a ring where this bull here can rage."
‘Raging Bull’ is often viewed as Scorsese’s greatest film, but during its production he felt that it was a vanity project and was worried that it would never gain a wide release. It began as De Niro had been reading the autobiography of Jake LaMotta. They asked Paul Schrader to write a script and there it languished until Scorsese’s drug addiction led to a crisis. Having been hospitalised and nearly dying from an overdose De Niro visited his Scorsese in the hospital, threw the book on his bed, and said, “I think we should make this.”
Following the life of Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) through his boxing career, coached by his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) supported by his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) from the side lines. However his self-destructive rage, obsessive jealousy and massive paranoia will destroy his career and his relationship with everyone that loves him.
‘Raging Bull’ is the greatest boxing film of all time and it has almost nothing to do with boxing. Okay that may not be strictly true but very little of the film actually devotes itself to the technical side of boxing like strategy, results or training. Instead it chooses to focus on the emotion that lies behind boxing and the kind of man that would choose to partake in such a career. For Jake La Motta boxing is a means of confession, resolving his personal issues and punishing his own sins. At one point just as he is about to enter a match his wife remarks that his opponent is “good looking”. In the ensuing fight La Motta bashes his face into a pulp. What happens in the ring is not decided by strategy or business but by fear and desire.
‘Raging Bull’ is a film about exactly that. La Motta’s life is dictated by his own self-loathing. He holds himself in such low self-esteem that he believes his wife would easily cheat on him. His obsession with her spirals into a fit of jealousy, fear of her own sexuality and the influence it has on him. He tortures himself with fantasies and conspiracies of Vickie sleeping with other men, he twists and scrutinises every statement and every glance that she makes to serve as proof for his paranoid outbursts. It is ironic that his fear of his wife no longer loving him leads to exactly that.
Rumour has it that Scorsese intended this to be his final directorial effort and while it thankfully wasn’t you can tell that he threw everything he had into it. It felt like the culmination of everything he had been working towards as a director. The film carries this sense of hyper realism but also immense stylistics. When Scorsese wants something to be brutal it is, beyond belief and when he vows to make it graceful, he does that as well. Once again he employs techniques such as slow motion to display a heightened sense of awareness, from invoking La Motta’s jealousy to that poetic opening shot.
The fight scenes apparently took six weeks longer to film than he had intended but the end result speaks for itself. These fights are not just two men hitting each other, they are artful and violent poems, more expressionistic than realistic but at the same time the visceral nature of what the fighters are going through never leaves you. Scorsese placed his camera within the ring itself and adopted such a personal view of the fight that one can be forgiven with wincing as each punch is thrown. Very massive impact is underlined, Scorsese even pakced concealed sponges into the gloves to release blood and sweat with every punch. De Niro actually trained with the real La Motta, going through rigorous training for the film, he even entered three real boxing matches in Brooklyn, winning two.
Not only that of course, but De Niro famously gained 60 pounds to play La Motta. Many actors use a physical transformation as a means to act for them, they convince themselves that gaining/losing weight will automatically establish them as a great performer. But De Niro never let his physicality do the acting for him, he literally transformed himself in this role, from the way he moves, speaks, holds himself, fights, sits, reacts, everything he does is a work of pure renovation. His performance is the most painful portrayal of paranoia in cinema history. It was his physical and mental transformation that sealed his position as the actor of a generation with this explosive display of talent. The ugly emotional turns he takes somehow provoke empathy in a reprehensible human being with a twisted sense of judgement. It is in my opinion the greatest performance ever put to film.
So with that a natural assumption would be that the supporting cast could not possibly live up to De Niro, but they do. Pesci is able to be the polar opposite to La Motta as his brother, you sense the logic and tactics behind his decisions, the responsibility he undertakes on behalf of his brother. Despite their contrast, their relationship is the closest one in the film and Pesci works with De Niro to convince us of that. By the end of the film when Joey is a shell of a man due to his brother’s treatment, which Pesci also plays perfectly, we’re reminded of what their relationship once was and the image we are now presented with only hits home harder.
One of the best scenes in the film involves the two of them. Joey bursts in on another domestic outburst from Jake and the two begin to discuss upcoming bouts and tactics. Jake laments how as a middleweight fighter he will never fight who he perceives as “the best there is”. Then he asks Joey to punch him in the face, after much persuasion Joey wraps a tea towel around his fist and lays into his brother, all the while Jake goading him to hit him harder. He slaps his brother, trying to provoke him, his stitched cuts open up and blood spatters across his face until Joey backs down. “What are you trying to prove” he asks, Jake simply smiles back, his point already made.
When Cathy Moriarty took this role she was nineteen years old. She had to portray a young woman from her carefree teenage years to being a broken woman trapped in an abusive marriage. It is a remarkable performance and one that carries equal gravitas for each stage of her portrayal. From the moment she appears she is the object of La Motta’s obsession and defines all of his actions. Having abused her at home, in his next fight he simply stands there letting himself be pummelled, refusing to fall down, his hands by his side and taking in his punishment. He hates himself too much to end the pain.
That is what ‘Raging Bull’ is about, a man who fails to separate his life inside the ring from his life outside it. By the end of the film, an overweight and balding La Motta is preparing to go out onto stage for his stand-up routine. He recites Brando’s famous speech from ‘On the Waterfront’ and at first we think he admits his failings. But then he psyches himself up as if he were entering the ring, shadowboxing and chanting “Go get ‘em champ”. Nothing has changed.
‘Raging Bull’ is Scorsese’s magnum opus, his true masterpiece, and the fulfilment of his entire career as a filmmaker.