Raging Bull [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #15]

A couple of months ago, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which cam out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #15.  Spoilers ahead.  

Raging Bull

Directed by Martin Scorcese

Release Date:  December 19, 1980 (US)
My age then:  10 years old

What it is about:  Real life boxer Jake LaMotta navigates his relationships and his own personal demons as he strives to win and then keep the middle-weight championship.

Starring Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, Cathy Moriarty as Vickie (Jake’s girlfriend, then wife) and Joe Pesci as Joey LaMotta (Jake’s brother).

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I knew this was a Scorcese film with De Niro starring in it, and that it was about boxing. I probably knew that it was in black and white, and that it was critically acclaimed. That’s about it.

Reality:  Holy smokes, what an intense, powerful and brutal film.

Raging Bull is a boxing film, but it apparently has only about ten minutes of boxing actually in it. But those ten minutes are so frenzied and breathtaking in their poetry and violence, it’s impossible not to be completely swallowed up by them. Much has been written about how they were different then most boxing fights because the camera is inside the ring, rather than outside. This is true, but it is more than that. The camera is right there in on the action, but it’s the sound effects that bring everything close, the black and white photography that makes each drop of sweat and blood sharp and clear, and the editing that brings the focus less on the sport of boxing specifically and more on the activity of punching someone in the face. The fight against Tony Janiro is especially cringe-inducing, as is the final battle against Sugar Ray Robinson. They are full of intensity and pain, but so effectively done.

And there’s genius to the filmmaking of Raging Bull that goes well beyond the boxing scenes. It’s perhaps the only movie I’ve ever seen which has tempted me think it was made in the time period that it’s set (mostly the 1940’s and 1950’s, but also the 1960’s a bit). The black and white imagery and the art direction give it a timeless feel, while the performances and the camerawork create a sense of distance that is brings out the feeling of peering into a different world and era.

Martin Scorcese also delivers a masterclass on pacing in the film’s storytelling. He knows when to blaze ahead with a scene or a story beat, and he knows when to slow it down and just force us stare at something, often with great discomfort.

Much of he shows us is threatening, or grotesque, beyond the violence of the boxing itself. Jake LaMotta himself is presented as a genuinely terrible and frightening person–abusive, unfaithful, jealous, full of double-standards…and terribly violent. The whole time you’re worried he’s going to kill someone, including his wife or brother.

But De Niro and Scorcese also make him sympathetic, with a pain one can’t help but to feel alongside of him. Whether we are seeing LaMotta young and angry, or excited and in love, or full of despair, or quietly defeated, or jealous and calculating, or even delivering later-in-life stand up comedy routines, Robert De Niro makes the character raw and so real, showing us enough of his inner life to keep us simultaneously entranced and horrified.

The other leads are also extremely good. I’m not particularly familiar with Cathy Moriarty, but she is amazing as the long-suffering Vickie, and Joe Pesci is a revelation as LaMotta’s brother Joey. Pesci is a firecracker of an actor, full of a wild energy that is kept constrained when it needs to be. Every once in a while that energy explodes, usually because Joey is trying to protect his brother in some way. He’s a deeply conflicted character, struggling between loyalty and frustration toward his brother, until he just cannot stand it any longer.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think?  Raging Bull is powerful and effective, but its also also brutal, confronting, and full of inappropriate moments. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it, and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but I will not soon forget it.

See here for the Master List.

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