Martin Scorsese makes pictures about the kinds of people you wouldn’t want to know. In his mostly b&w biopic of middleweight boxing champ Jake La Motta, “Raging Bull,” the La Motta character played by Robert De Niro is one of the most repugnant and unlikeable screen protagonists in some time. But the boxing sequences are possibly the best ever filmed, and the film captures the intensity of a boxer’s life with considerable force. The United Artists release, a Robert Chartoff-Irwin Winkler production, should do well in class situations but may flounder in the mass market due to the offputting character.
As in other Scorsese pix, the director excels at whipping up an emotional storm but seems unaware that there is any need for quieter, more introspective moments in drama. Every scene is all-out hysteria. This bravura tendency makes the boxing scenes so viscerally intense that the viewer will be almost reeling, but Scorsese unfortunately shoots every other kind of scene as it’s a boxing match too.
Scorsese here blends the work of screenwriters of “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, into a film which takes the emotionally tangled N.Y. Italian milieu of the former and shows it creating psychotic De Niro of the latter. Here De Niro’s antisocial violence is channeled into the socially accepted role of the prizefighter, but in the end he has ruined his body and alienated everyone who ever cared about him, including the audience.
The relentless depiction of the downward slide of La Motta from a trim contender in 1941 to a shockingly bloated slob introducing strippers in a sleazy nightclub in 1964 has the morbid quality of a German expressionist film. By the time De Niro – who actually gained 50 pounds for the latter scenes – sits at a dressing-room mirror looking at his puffy face and trying to close the tuxedo collar around his swollen neck, he’s become as grotesque as Emil Jannings in “The Blue Angel.”
The film is not a conventional biopic in that it skips over important stages in its character’s life (such as his rise to fame, his divorce and remarriage, all covered in a quick montage of home movies) in order to concentrate on building up selected emotional high (or low) lights. That would be fine, since the contemporary audience doesn’t know or care much about La Motta going in, except that the scenes it does choose to show are almost perversely chosen to alienate the audience.
Scorsese and De Niro made a similar miscalculation in “New York, New York,” in which the lead character also did nothing but rant and abuse his wife for the entire film. There it seemed especially unpleasant because the audience had other expectations raised by the musical genre, but here it works more often because boxing pics are expected to be rough and violent.
Aside from the customary genre plot of a boxer selling out to the mob, what seems to be on the minds of Scorsese and his screenwriters is an exploration of an extreme form of Catholic sado-masochism. La Motta’s violence toward himself and other people seems to stem from the deep repression of his sexual tendencies, as his brother-manager Joe Pesci hints in one scene, suggesting if La Motta would sleep with his wife more often, he’d hit her and other people less often. All of the unsatisfactory sexual encounters between De Niro and wife Cathy Moriarty take place underneath prominently displayed crucifixes and religious paintings, providing a pervasive feeling of guilt and frustration.
Schrader’s fascination with self-destructive characters, and his ability to make them compellingly real, give Scorsese and De Niro some scenes of high emotional voltage to work with, such as when La Motta acts out his insane jealousy of his wife, but Scorsese never makes credible why a woman would put up with such incredible abuse for so long. The inarticulate performance of newcomer Moriarty, who has an interesting sullen quality when she remains silent, never adequately fills in the blanks of the character.
The boxing scenes regularly punctuate the drama, with printed titles keeping track of the time and place. De Niro, with his dedication to believability, trained himself into a completely convincing fighter, with La Motta’s crouched, in-close style. The other fighters in the pic, notably Johnny Barnes as recurring opponent Sugar Ray Robinson, are also top-notch under the supervision of boxing technical advisor Al Silvani.
Not since “The Harder They Fall” in 1956 have boxing scenes been filmed with such terrific intensity, and “Raging Bull” outdoes that and other classics of the genre such as “The Set-Up” and “Body & Soul” in conveying the punishing physicality of boxing from the fighter’s p.o.v. – quite literally so in the amazing finale to the third Robinson fight, in which La Motta takes a horrible beating that the viewer feels with him. Lenser Michael Chapman makes spectacular contributions to the brilliance of the fight scenes, as do the sound crew with their surreal heightening of the sounds of punches and crowd noise. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker also make highly effective use of slow motion in the fights and elsewhere to take the film out of objective reality into the subjectivity of La Motta’s mind.
Though the film is almost completely in b&w, which fits the subject and time period perfectly, color is used briefly in the home movies sequence, and the main title card is also in color. Technicolor did the superb print job.
When screened for the trade press, the film was not completely mixed or timed, and the titles were incomplete, but UA indicated no other changes would be made before the openings.
1980: Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Editing.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actor (Joe Pesci), Supp. Actress (Cathy Moriarty), Cinematography, Sound