It is hard to say that one enjoys watching Raging Bull. Though there are no deaths, it is an extremely violent, often grim film in which the main character is nothing short of despicable. There is also no denying that it is a masterpiece. Like Scorsese's greatest film, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull is about a man with an inability to connect with other people, combined with a sexual inadequacy - even fear - of women. In both films, the main characters (both played by Robert DeNiro, in the performances that made him legendary) resort to violence, not only as desperate attempts to communicate but also as a twisted form of penance for their sins.
The Raging Bull himself is Jake LaMotta, one of the toughest middleweight fighters of all time and whose series of matches with Sugar Ray Robinson ranks among the greatest feuds in boxing history. Raging Bull is often mistakenly referred to as a sports film. Boxing is the framework for the story, but it is not about boxing: it is about one of the leading themes in Scorsese's body of work (even seen to a degree in his recent film, Shutter Island) - the desire, fear, distrust and feelings of inadequacy his male characters have towards women.
What is remarkable about Scorsese's handling of this subject matter (and it might take a filmmaker of his brilliance to pull off) is that his films do not descend into misogyny. The women in his film are fully fleshed-out characters who are often sympathetic and usually stronger in character than the males.
Vicky LaMotta (realized by Cathy Moriarity in a great performance) is such a character. She is the ideal blonde goddess Jake obsessively pines for - then (due to his feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing) obsessively looks for signs of her cheating, when there is never any direct evidence that she did. She mistakenly refers to an opponent as "good looking," leading to Jake brutally pummeling the man's face to a pulp in the ring (note that Jake after the fight glares directly into the audience at his wife; message sent). Throughout the film, Scorsese brilliantly uses slow-motion to show Jake obsessively observing his wife's every move. Any glance, touch, or kiss she gives another man - even Jake's own brother - can and is often twisted by Jake as a sign of her infidelity. Even without dialogue, DeNiro conveys how Jake's twisted mind works: he hates himself and is not worthy of her, so why wouldn't she look elsewhere? Yet she still must be punished.
Perhaps the relationship that means the most to Jake is the one he shares with his brother (Joe Pesci, in his first great role). Joey is every bit Jake's equal in toughness and temperament, only in a smaller package. Jake's paranoia and self-loathing eventually ruin even this relationship. It seems near the end of the film that it is Joey's forgiveness that Jake needs the most.
The film's famous fight scenes are like nothing shown in a film, before or since. There is truly a surreal edge to them. Some moments are sped up, with strange shrieks heard in the background. At other times, the fighters seem to stand eerily still, as if to signal impending doom. Many moments are not only brutal, but claustrophobic, as if one of the fighters is actually punching the camera.
The final fight scene is nearly unwatchable, as Jake basically holds on to the rope and lets Robinson beat him nearly to death, leaving Jake's face a bloody mess (interesting note by Roger Ebert: one reason Scorsese chose black-and-white for this film is that he was afraid the fight scenes would be too bloody in color for an R rating). The scene is not only brutal but unflinchingly honest: Jake seems to welcome every blow as a form of penance. He feels he deserves every hit.
It fascinates me that the film not only received full support from LaMotta but that he even served as personal advisor to the film. Since he often comes across as truly loathsome at times, it seems almost masochistic on his part to bare his baser qualities so openly on the screen. Maybe such public revelations on his part served as a form of penance as well.
I realize that the film I describe is not one that everyone might want to see. It is often dark and painful to watch, but there is no denying its power. It truly is a landmark film that uses innovative filmmaking and searing performances to address poignant subject matter (how men sometimes resort to violence due to their inability to relate to women; how the drive that makes some men great athletes can also make them into poor human beings) with brilliant clarity.
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