Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Premise: Character study of boxer Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), following the ups and downs of his life and career.
What Works: Raging Bull is one of the de facto examples of cinematic craft in much the same way as Michelangelo’s “Statue of David” is an example of excellence in sculpture or Leonardo DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa” is held as the ultimate in Renaissance-era oil painting. Raging Bull pulls together the elements of cinema, bending and weaving the possibilities of sound and image together in ways that make the film a tour of the possibilities of the form. Varying everything from color and focus to film speed, the cinematography captures the claustrophobia of a Bronx apartment, the savage violence of the boxing ring, and the isolation of a prison cell and demonstrates the right techniques at the right moments to amplify the meaning of the scene and explore the character’s psychology through cinema. The sound is used equally well, especially in the boxing scenes, which incorporate great sound effects work; Raging Bull uses silence when it is most effective, and relies on music of the 1940s to give the period feel and fill in the cultural background of Little Italy. Raging Bull has a few great performances by the cast such as Cathy Moriarty as Vickie, La Motta’s wife, and Joe Pesci as Joey, La Motta’s brother. But the performance of the film that stands out, partly due to the structure of the film but largely due to the excellence of the work, is Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta. It is a performance on par with Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, and George C. Scott in Patton. De Niro portrays La Motta as a monstrous human being, good at what he does for a living but self-destructive and unable to control himself outside of the ring. The tension between how the character sees himself and how he behaves creates a portrayal of a man and his masculinity that is complex and, if not sympathetic, is extremely empathic and allows insight into this tortured soul and more broadly into the conflicts of post-war men in America.
What Doesn’t: This is a film of a different era and it is unconventional in its narrative structure and how it handles the boxing than many other fight films like Rocky. Here the fighting is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself and is used to explain the psychological make up of the lead character. Raging Bull is not a feel good movie and audiences who expect films to be easily accessible may find themselves locked out of the movie if they won’t put forth the effort to try and understand it.
DVD extras: The two-disc special edition of Raging Bull includes a four-part behind the scenes feature, a short documentary, comparisons between De Niro and La Motta’s fighting footage, newsreel footage of La Motta, and trailers.
Bottom Line: Raging Bull is necessary viewing for fans of De Niro and Scorcese and one of the key films of the New Hollywood era. It is not an easy movie to screen but it is worth the time and effort not merely to watch, but to re-watch, dissect, and learn from.
Episode: #185 (April 6, 2008)