I went to the Martin Scorsese exhibition at ACMI last weekend, which inspired me to catch up on his filmography, starting with the movie often cited as his finest. I probably resisted watching it previously because of the perceived subject matter; boxing might be one of the most popular sports in the movies, for a good reason too (the world will probably hang on forever for a gripping drama about synchronised swimming), but it just really isn’t my cuppa. What became clear very soon though that this isn’t a “boxing” movie as such and it’s certainly no feelgood Rocky-style sports fairytale, which I guess I wouldn’t have expected from Scorsese anyway. It’s really a character study of a deeply unloveable, self-destructive, brutish man who can only truly express himself best when he’s beating the shit out of his opponents inside the boxing ring. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s visceral, kinetic, powerful, incredibly well-made and punches you right in the face, pardon the pun.
Robert De Niro disappears completely into the role of Jake La Motta, a real-life middle-weight boxer whose biography the film is based on. The movie follows just over two decades of his life and covers his two marriages, rise to the world championship and his decline to a balding overweight night club owner and a sleazy comedian in New York. In the course of the film, Jake’s temper and insane crippling jealousy alienate him from his younger brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and his second wife Vickie, a stunning blond beauty who is only fifteen when we meet her, but already with a cool, poised level-gazed demeanour of an older woman. Joey is the person Jake is probably closest to, and De Niro and Pesci’s verbal sparring is electric. As beastly as Jake is, De Niro makes him a magnetic character to watch, and sometimes it’s even possible to cheer for him. Most of the time though, the threat of violence that’s simmering just under the surface makes Jake’s domestic scenes unbearably tense and you just want to shout to his wife, “get the hell away from this guy”.
The boxing scenes, I was surprised to find out later, only take up ten minutes of the film, and as much as I don’t care about the boxing I can’t deny their power. They’re both heavily stylized and realistically brutal and they’re drenched in sweat and blood; I wouldn’t want to think what they’d look like in colour when they’re hard to watch even with the starkly beautiful black-and-white cinematography.
Most biopics/sports movies follow a tried-and-true rise-fall-rise formula, but Raging Bull is pretty much a bleak rise-fall-fall. There’s a brief sorta redemptive moment for Jake near the end, but I was left wondering how genuine or self-aware Jake really was, and whether the other person was ever going to be receptive. Overall, definitely a downer but a masterpiece without a doubt.