Thursday, 20 January 2011
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Frank Vincent,
By Alan Bacchus
I won’t pretend that Raging Bull is my favourite film, not even my favourite Martin Scorsese film, not the Best film of the decade as some critics proclaimed, and not even the best film of its particularly year (anyone seen David Lynch’s Elephant Man lately?). My slight hesitation is caused by Robert de Niro's thoroughly unlikeable yet effective portrayal as Jake La Motta as a beast with mood swings as scary as any horror film. But that's where my critique ends, the rest is unbridled penance for Martin Scorsese's masterpiece.
Raging Bull is a tough film, emotionally draining yet cinematically and stylistically exhilarating. It was a project started by Robert De Niro, and pitched to Martin Scorsese to direct and Robert Chartoff/Irwin Winkler to producer. As it’s man character, Jake La Motta, a middleweight from the 1940’s, nicknamed the Bronx Bull for his tenacity and brutish style of fighting. Sadly there wasn’t much dividing the ring from his personal life. In Scorsese’s unglamorous streetwise fashion he depicts the abusive relationships, briefly with his first wife whom he divorced after shamelessly courting the local 15 year old neighbourhood girl, and then this same girl Vickie who eventually became his wife.
Vicki's relationship is characterized as the caveman-cavegirl type, one of physical and emotional dominance and submission. As a character study La Motta is both horrific and fascinating. De Niro depicts La Motta as a bi-polar psychopath living in his own world, twisted and grotesque. Perhaps he’s a product of his environment though, as Scorsese is clear to depict this type of aggression everywhere, visible in the streets and clubs and audible through the open windows of the tenement apartments.
The violence and depraved behaviour of La Motta goes to such extremes at times it switches to humour. Scorsese’s treatment of this is razor sharp, constantly walking a delicate line between devastating emotional abuse and jet black dark comedy. La Motta’s obscenely violent mood swings, for instance. In his fight with his first wife the argument starts with an overcooked steak and proceeds toward physical violence. After the harrowing scene La Motta calls ‘a truce’, a throwaway word used when distracted by his brother Joey. And later in that scene La Motta is depicted talking quietly and with sincerity with his brother.
The relationship with Joey is the key relationship in the film however, two brothers so closely tied together, yet something which La Motta destroys after accusing him of sleeping with his wife. This moment represents the last straw in his psychological deterioration. The arc in this relationship is closed in the devastating finale when La Motta, years after that heated argument, approaches Joey on the street and physically embraces him with pure love.
Stylistically the film is still deservedly celebrated for its expressionistic fight sequences. Scorsese is clear not to shoot La Motta’s fights as realistic but what it may have looked and sounded like from La Motta’s skewed point of view.
This was 1980 and here he just about perfected his cinema language, both inside and outside the ring. His slow motion shots used in key moments of focus from La Motta's point of view; his overlapping sound tails which bridge and connect scenes, tails longer than most other films, long enough for us to notice and thus pay attention to; the amplified ambient sounds of the street which put the environment as close to the fore as the actions of the characters; Thelma Schoonmaker’s superlative editing; and of course Scorsese’s pitch perfect use of music, in particular La Cavalleria Rusticana which contrasts the hard edged visuals with graceful melancholy.
The dichotomy of beauty and beast exists in every frame of Raging Bull.
Raging Bull is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox/MGM Home Entertainment