Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull has a feral, staccato rhythm — the pounding beat of impacted frustration exploding outward. Early on, Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) wipes out an opponent in the ring, bashing him repeatedly, and the editing relishes the carnage. The movie alternates between such brutality — not only in the ring — and quieter, somehow scarier scenes wherein Jake is always set on simmer, waiting for someone or something to give him an excuse to blow up.
Raging Bull can certainly be taken as the anti-Rocky, in which the bum stays a bum despite winning the belt, and fattens himself into an even worse bum who quotes Marlon Brando’s famous “I coulda been a contender” without seeming to comprehend its meaning. Only a great actor can play a bad actor, and De Niro at the end of this sad and devastating portrait recites the lines with the opacity of a man who just doesn’t get it, never has and never will. Jake doesn’t know himself, other than the parts of himself he hates.
Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman shot Raging Bull as a shining black-and-white dream of a boxing noir, with the Brillo-headed Jake sitting in shabby apartments whose very low-rentness is mocked by the film’s visual elegance. Photographically, the style is 1949; verbally it’s very ’70s, with Jake and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci in a comic performance that saves the movie from getting too dour) sitting around delivering variations of “Fuck you, you mook.” Playing perhaps his sanest character, Pesci emerges as the film’s heroic voice of reason, even putting across such streetwise koans as “If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win.” He also works magic in his scenes with his longtime stage partner Frank Vincent as a low-level mobster who just wants Jake to play the mob’s game. There’s no threat in Vincent’s manner — he just wants things to run smooth — and Pesci spars with him in a neighborhood-familiar way that tells you these guys probably played stickball while Jake was punching his first bag.
Pauline Kael referred to Jake as “a slob Othello,” and his big issue appears to be his terror of being cheated on. He’s the sort of dickhead who jeeringly accuses his wife of sucking dick up and down the block but also has a girlfriend on the side. In no time flat he jettisons his first wife and takes up with a neighborhood Lolita named Vicki (Cathy Moriarty). In real life, Vicki (who died in 2005) was only nine years younger than Jake, but in the movie she seems like a teenager (Moriarty was nineteen during filming, De Niro thirty-six). Jake is infatuated with the blonde Vicki, who’s everything his dark-haired Italian ex-wife wasn’t. But soon he begins to worry that she’s having flings with every guy in the neighborhood — including his own brother.
Raging Bull is two kinds of movie: a rigorously storyboarded boxing picture — and the fights here have yet to be topped for sheer intensity — and a Cassavetes-like improv film, in which characters rub each other’s nerves raw. Amusingly, to this day De Niro believes that Joey did sleep with Vicki, and Pesci, informed of this, blew it off: “That’s just Bobby in character as Jake.” The point is that each actor is convinced of his character’s own position, right or wrong, and the film’s most emotionally brutal scene finds Jake confronting Joey in a conversation that starts out being about a TV on the fritz. It feels utterly real, emerging out of genuine understanding of how such family blowups originate in the banal. Joey’s pride in the face of Jake’s interrogation — “That’s a sick question, you’re a sick fuck, and I ain’t that sick that I’m gonna answer it” — reads to Jake as a confession.
Jake’s deterioration follows fast; as the saying goes, he gains the world but loses his soul. Eventually he sits by a pool, sheathed in flab (De Niro famously put on 60 pounds; Scorsese decided to show us the fat Jake at the movie’s start so that the audience could get their morbid curiosity out of the way), reduced to destroying his championship belt for the jewels when he’s busted for letting an underage girl drink in his club. He takes the jewels to a pawn shop and is told they aren’t worth as much without the belt. This movie gives no one a break. It all leads to Jake standing before a mirror, rehearsing his lines for his one-man show, punching the air and telling himself he’s the boss.
Raging Bull is in perfect keeping with Scorsese’s work at the time — drenched in Catholic blood and guilt, full of self-loathing fury. The script by Paul Schrader (no stranger to guilt himself) and Mardik Martin, based on La Motta’s own (ghostwritten) memoir that is, if anything, even more revealing and incriminating, gives us a protagonist whose philosophy couldn’t be further from Rocky Balboa’s “It’s not how hard you hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” It’s as if Jake picked boxing because it gave focus to his rage and his need to be punished for his sins (there were a lot of them that the movie never gets into — rape, attempted murder). By the time he fights Sugar Ray Leonard he’s practically begging Sugar Ray to punch his head off. He stands against the ropes and waits for oblivion. And yet he can’t resist taunting Sugar Ray after it’s all over — “Y’never got me down, Ray.” It goes back to the earlier scene when Jake forces Joey to hit him with all he’s got — “What are you tryin’ to prove?” yells Joey. For Jake, it’s how hard he can get hit, and that’s all; moving forward isn’t a concern.
I consider this Scorsese’s masterpiece — yes, even above GoodFellas and Taxi Driver — because it most successfully transforms his obsessions into violent art. Scorsese and De Niro begin with the base clay of La Motta and end up sculpting a deeply flawed and mutated Christ figure who crucifies himself over and over in his head and creates his own Judases. It’s the one Scorsese film whose sustained pitch of pain and sickness renders it near-unwatchable, while Chapman’s lens work and Thelma Schoonmaker’s impressionistic editing give it a harsh beauty that ensures we can’t look away. Released in late 1980 and begun in April 1979, it’s the last great film of the ’70s — the last lacerating personal vision before the era of easy riders and raging bulls came to an end.