The opening credits of Martin Scorsese’s dark, disturbing biography of boxer Jake La Motta take their place with the most poetic ever filmed. The sequence haunts Raging Bull and it’s the cornerstone to understanding the brazen originality of this dangerous piece of work. La Motta (Robert De Niro), alone in the ring, hooded like a figure from Italian opera, shadowboxes in slow motion to the strains of the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. The music and the helplessness of the man hidden away under the hood of his robe, his anger anesthetized, coalesce into a cruel confusion that robs us of our pity right away. An audience is going to need that sequence, the way a dying man might a priest, for what follows.
When we next see De Niro he is hidden under a mound of fat and years, readying himself for a performance in a nightclub. The actor’s awesome transformation tells, in a single scene, how years, once lived, devalue into moments. The next cut, from that 1964 scene to 1941, shows the “Bronx Bull” when he was a contender, his face more open under a shag-rug mop of hair, behind a battered, bulbous nose. Scorsese and his screenwriters, Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, tell their story from that point: La Motta’s meeting his second wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), and their tortured relationship, his climb to the middleweight world championship, and his decline into a corpulent, crude man with a cigar and a dirty mouth. But they don’t tell it with a conventional narrative smoothness; we get highlights instead of wasted exposition.
Shot by Michael Chapman in evocative black and white (except for the credits and a montage of home movies), Raging Bull moves with a feverish rhythm and brandishes an obsessive style. La Motta’s fights with Sugar Ray Robinson, Marcel Cerdan and others don’t build dramatically the way the fight sequences do in, say, Body and Soul or Champion: they’re quick, painful jabs of action all the more visceral (a spray of teeth, sweat and blood rocketing out from one fighter’s profile) for being so quick. Scorsese has captured what Norman Mailer described in The
Fight as “the carnality of boxing,” the “meat against meat,” and has flayed the genre at the same time. The movies that de-romanticized boxing in the past— The Harder They Fall, Requiem for a Heavyweight—always gave the audience something to hold on to: the fighter’s humanity. Scorsese doesn’t; Jake La Motta manages to alienate everyone he touches—his wives, his fast-talking, patient brother-manager Joey (played superbly by Joe Pesci) and, finally, us. Yet this man, even though he seems to have no saving grace as a human being, suffers; his rage comes from not being able to understand himself or his place in the world. He can’t smoke, drink or, at times, have sex, and he doesn’t care much for money; all he seems to have is a small pocket of pride.
Raging Bull, like Cavalleria Rusticana, works by heightened realism or verismo, its tone pitched high on the scale. The fight scenes, with their lancet cuts and popping flashbulbs, are like lightning hitting the screen; and the passion of the film-making persists outside the ring, too. The movie keeps erupting. La Motta is constantly worried about his weight, and his fear turns him into a pug Othello, insanely jealous of his wife. The ring has become his lago, baiting him. His relationship with Vickie is passionately sadomasochistic, rooted in Catholic guilt, and they go at each other like sharks. In the final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson, La Motta allows himself to be crucified on the ropes. Private voices of guilt, pride, atonement and self-hatred seem to be whispering in his ear telling him to stand and take it.
Nearly every scene in Raging Bull runs contrary to our expectations. La Motta gets on the phone to reconcile himself with his brother, whom he has beaten up in one of his jealous rages. Instead of one of those touching scenes filled with pregnant pauses and cracked voices, there is a stream of wickedly obscene verbal abuse from Joey on the other end. La Motta, years later, is thrown into jail because of a vice rap involving a 14-year-old girl at his club in Miami. His spirit finally stripped, he starts banging his head against the wall, pounding it with his fists, crying “Why? Why? I’m not an animal.” The scene goes on unrelentingly, shot through a keyhole, and all we see are De Niro’s expressive shoulders racked in pain and hear the shivery tone behind his tears. Raging Bull is the story of a man banging his head against a brick wall. It’s unpleasant, he’s unpleasant, and we can’t stop watching. Why? It’s a question that passes over the mind like a cloud in what had been a clear sky j ust two hours before.
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