An emotionally self-destructive boxer's journey through life, as the violence and temper that leads him to the top in the ring, destroys his life outside it.
First, let me start off by saying that Martin Scorsese is by far my favorite filmmaker. Now, keep that bias in mind when I say that Raging Bull is the closest thing to cinematic perfection you will ever see.
Robert DeNiro won a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of real life middle-weight boxer Jake LaMotta, and deservedly so. Unfortunately, this film didnít get the Best Picture Oscar that it deserved, losing to Robert Redfordís Ordinary People. However, time has proven the films worth, showing up on many critics top ten lists and being a flagpole of cinematic history. It opened to mixed reviews and box office, to become ďThe best film of the 80ísĒ as stated by Siskel and Ebert.
As with many of Martin Scorseseís films, there is a lot more to this film than whatís on the surface. On the surface, itís simply a bio-pic of a boxer that garners success in the ring, and fails in everything else outside of it. On subsequent viewings, you end up breaking through the ice and seeing a much greater and complex film.
The film opens with Jake LaMotta taking a beating in the ring before delivering a haymaker in the final round of the fight to his opponent. For all intents and purposes, this punch disables the other fighter, but heís saved by the bell. LaMottaís opponent wins the fight by decision, to LaMotta and his brother Joeys (Joe Pesci) dismay.
We then see LaMotta picking a fight with his wife and on the verge of being violent with her over the cooking of his dinner. This picture is not kind to LaMotta and shows the paradox that professional fighters live with. He is applauded, paid, and worshipped to beat the tar out of another human being in the ring, but is expected to act like a gentleman outside of it. During the screening of this film, the real life Jake LaMotta asked his ex-wife if he was really that bad. She replied that he was actually worse.
Jake then meets Vicky (Cathy Moriarty) through his brother Joey, and they soon get married. Not much is known about the first wife, but one assumes they got divorced. LaMottaís courtship of Vicky is clumsy and aggressive, much like he performs in the ring, which is consistent to the many themes in this film. The two are soon married and after everyone is too afraid to fight Jake, they take an offer from the mafia for a title shot. The cost is that Jake has to lose. However, Jakeís pride gets in the way and the fight is easily seen as a dive. However, Jake soon gets his title shot once the smoke has cleared he wins the title.
After confronting Joey about this, he canít or wonít, take his brothers denial as truth. He then confronts his wife and starts questioning her every move. She continually tells him that nothing happened, but he keeps questioning her. She finally says the answer he wants to hear, which sets the time bomb off inside Jake LaMotta. He marches down the street, storms into his brothers home and violently beats him. During this melee, Vicky tries to get Jake off, and he ends up punching her.
Now Jake is all alone and his self destructive behavior continues until he finally finds himself in the Dade County jail where he must face what he has become and who he actually is. This scene of Robert DeNiro alone in the jail cell, beating himself against the wall, is one of the most powerful scenes Iíve ever seen.
The boxing ring plays a vital theme in this film; much more than a stage for some terrific action sequences. It is the arena of Jakeís redemption. Outside of the ring, Jake is not a good person, so he willingly takes a beating inside the ring as a form of sacrifice for his sins. Martin Scorsese continually puts catholic references into his films, and this is one of those references. Punishment for your sins. This theme is seen early in the film with the very first fight, and after the argument with his wife about the dinner, when he makes his brother continually punch him in the face.
Water plays an important visual motif in this film for Vicky. When we first see Vicky, she is splashing her legs in the local pool. There is a slow motion shot of her legs flicking in and out of the pool and the water running off her legs. This might seem like an unimportant detail to most, but it shows that Vicky is something you will never be able to get your hands on and grab, much like water. Another example is when Jake and Joey are hiding from the rain, while Jake talks about his suspicions of his wife.
Technically, this film is nearly flawless. It is said that you can take every frame of this film, blow it up, and hang it on your wall, because the photography is so elegant and beautiful, and I agree. Michael Chapmanís brilliant black and white photography is crisp, clean, and a work of art. The irony is that this film was to be shot in color, but the gloves didnít look like right in color, and therefore prompted the use of black and white.
If you want to see how beautiful this film is to look at, you need look no further than the opening title sequence. Itís a long shot of DeNiro shadow boxing in the ring in slow motion while the opening credits play along with Pietro Mascagniís beautiful ďCavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo,Ē which serves as the musical theme.
The boxing scenes are exciting, innovative, well shot, and brilliantly edited (earning Thelma Schoonmaker an Academy Award). If you liked the boxing scenes in ďCinderella Man,Ē come and take a visit to this film to see where Ron Howard got his motivation for those scenes.
Martin Scorsese also shows his genius at directing in these boxing scenes as well. Take for instance one of the fights between Sugar Ray Leonard and LaMotta. In real life, Jake said he couldnít remember too much of the fight (which he lost) but he felt like he was in hell. Scorsese opens this scene in a long shot booming down, symbolizing the descent. Smoke fills the room, giving the feeling of heat and cloudiness. In the opening shots, we donít see LaMotta completely. There is a rope or other obstructions partially blocking our view, which lends to the confusion LaMotta himself was feeling.
Every fight is shot with the camera inside the ring, except the fight LaMotta throws. The camera shoots the fight from outside the ring, showing that his heartís not in it. Itís tiny details like these that make this film so great, and thatís not just on the visual part. The audio mixing for this movie is one of the best youíll hear. The use and non-use of sound in this picture is one of the best youíll encounter.
If you like watching movies that donít involve much thought and you like eye candy, then you probably wonít like this film very much. However, if youíre looking for a full feast of a movie that delivers something new every time you watch it, be sure to check out this masterpiece.
One note about the text at the end of the movie, which is a Bible passage about the blind man learning to see again. Many people try to apply this to the film, which is easy to do, but not itís intent. Scorsese thought no one would see this film, so he put a farewell note to his film school teacher, Haig Manoogian, who died before being able to see this picture. Itís basically a thank you to Haig, who taught Scorsese a great deal.