My relationship with boxing has never reached heights of fandom, I enjoy watching the sport, I know some of the key legends, and I adore playing it in my gaming console. There is something fascinating about the duel between two men, using only their fists and restrained in such a small environment, although whenever me and the family go and see the next Pacquiao fight, I never found myself falling deeper in the mindset of the fighters themselves, I am always present as a spectator, simply anticipating for that glorious knockdown, which in some cases never happen at all.
It was in my initial experience of Raging Bull that allowed me to sink deeper into a fighter’s perspective, both professionally and personally. Scorsese’s knowledge of the sport during the production of this film was limited, which he has admitted to, and that can certainly be seen in the way the scenes within the ring are depicted. When Jake LaMotta and his opponent stand toe to toe against one another, in reality there would be a sense of strategy felt in the way a character reacts and analyses; that sense of grace, even from a rough and brawling fighter like LaMotta, should be present in their punches and footwork. But Scorsese instead does what he is best at, deconstructing these characters and reassemble them in a way that amplifies their symbolic essence; he elevates the brutality in LaMotta’s assaults to a texture of artistic richness which allows his tale to be a more intimate one. The same could be stated for the ring and the lights itself, at times taking completely the perspective of LaMotta viewing moments in slow motion, not for artificial impact, but rather to demonstrate the almost infinite time that one would feel in between dings of the bell. It can all be easily dismissed as excessive, especially since his depiction of violence is carried from the intensity and darkness found in Taxi Driver, unapologetically spilling blood and spit from every hook and uppercut that land their way, heightening the destructive nature of the sport.
Raging Bull is an exhaustive look for Jake LaMotta’s life, his successes and downfall, starting around the period where he meets his second wife, whom at the time was only 15 years old, Vickie. From there we see him enter fight after fight, aiming to become the Middleweight Champion, while also covering his life outside the ring, which Scorsese and writers Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin consistently focuses on the domino-like tragedies that would fall upon him. In his professional career, we witness the rivalry he has built upon with Sugar Ray Robinson, and the other long list of fighters that he encounters in order to climb up the rankings, hoping to get that one chance to be a contender for the title. These aspects of the film take a small fraction of the film’s actual running time, and as I have said earlier, when the film does arrive to these points, there isn’t a sense of sensation to be found in their encounters, it becomes far more deeper and personal that carries significant weight in LaMotta’s losses and victories.
It is abundantly clear that Scorsese, like Taxi Driver, intended to create a film that exposes the tragedy of the human soul, a self-destructing figure encapsulated by his sense of paranoia and arrogance. Much of his life is in suspicion of his wife and to those who he considers as threats in stealing her away from him; Scorsese lets this grow and expose itself slowly through bursts, which eventually becomes more threatening and self-destructive as it reaches closer to the end of the film. During these moments of reaction, Scorsese distances the audience from his perspective in order to view him from a harsher and punishing light, we find ourselves empathising towards those he inflicts his angers to; but this isn’t to say we that Scorsese deprives us from his mindset completely, as there are moments where we could see theories and ideas formulate in his mind as he views a moment from his perspective, during then we feel the paranoia in ways that carries significant weight, which the film slowly builds and carries until it would eventually explode and suffocate the titular character.
LaMotta’s self-destructive nature comes in the form of feeding and violence; outside the ring, he finds comfort in food, at times a sense of distraction from the delusional ideas that run through his head, a temporary escape that eventually becomes an addiction. Slowly, he destroys the trust that he has built with those closest to him, Vickie and his brother Joey, the one for so long has accepted his flaws and obsessions, willing to go the extra mile in order to maintain his happiness, at times even allowing himself to be assaulted by his brother’s barrages in the sparring sessions. It was heartbreaking to see when the cord of trust was cut in Jake and Joey’s relationship, where Jake’s delusions began to consume the strongest relationship of his life, staring intently on him, delivered with a question masqueraded as an aggressive interrogation; “You Fuck My Wife?”. It was from there, we lose our sympathy towards Jake, we view him as a villain of his own story, a man who channels his strength into his arms and fist, and assaulting both his wife and his brother with such blind rage that even his plead for forgiveness wasn’t enough to win back our loyalty.
The film of course, would not have been the legend that it is without the captivating performances brought by its trio; Robert De Niro (Jake LaMotta), Joe Pesci (Joey), and Cathy Moriarty (Vickie). If it wasn’t for De Niro’s anti-hero charm and complexity brought in his previous collaboration with Scorsese, Taxi Driver, then this would have easily been my favourite performance from the actor; this was De Niro displaying intense commitment in his method acting, changing shape to suit the eventual downfall of his role and harnesses LaMotta’s sense of rage both internally and externally with neither one reaching at a fault, unlike today where we rarely see such a performance from him. Joe Pesci’s Joey was far more composed, there is a humanity and moral centre in his performance, he attempts to ground LaMotta with every moment of potential outburst; I much prefer Pesci in these type of roles, where subtlety is demanded more from him, which has been lacking in all of the other films that I have seen in. Cathy Moriarty carries a Kim Novak quality in her presence as Vickie, mirroring the obsessive relationship that was found between the two leads in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Moriarty portrays with quietness in her early presence, constantly building within her anger and resentment towards her husband, during which she is able to release in the latter half of the film.
The film carries a noir-ish atmosphere in its photography; stripping the film from the diversity of colour, maintaining our focus in the performance brought by its actors and the ideas that Scorsese is attempting to push into its story. The film primarily takes place in the 1940s, a period where many films have achieved in depicting its glamour and class that filled it, but since the film attempts to capture a direr tone, it is only necessary to strip any potential of nostalgic beauty to be found, and it would save him the effort of having to maintaining accuracy through the period’s intricacies. The film’s choice of utilising black and white photography reminds me of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, as both films seem to utilise this style in order to push the mood that the story is attempting to create, and it paints an aspect of New York that is less than appealing; whether this was a direct reference, I am not sure, and it is highly doubtful, but the similarities are certainly there.
Raging Bull holds itself back from becoming a masterpiece due to minor pacing issues found in its middle segments, at times coming off as a bit repetitive in exploring the titular character’s psychological condition; but this flaw is far from intrusive and in its own way gives the audience enough time to absorb and process the character. It is simply wonderful to see the earlier films of an auteur, where they are yet lost into the idea of excess and comfort, with every shot filled with blood, sweat, and tears that calls out to its audience for acceptance and artistic admiration.