In posting this review I admit to one of my greatest mistakes when it comes to film. I put off watching Raging Bull despite having it for almost a year. Well, now I have rectified that mistake and the result was glorious.
Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese’s collaborations together produced what I consider to be the finest film of the seventies, one of the finest films of the 90’s, and now quite possibly the finest film of the eighties as well. Raging Bull, put quite simply, is one hell of a film. It takes you into the mind of the destructive man that was Jake La Motta who is ferociously brought to life by what might be Robert De Niro’s finest performance, and shows you how his struggles both personally and professionally ended up shaping his life.
La Motta was more than just a boxer, he was a force of nature that battered and abused anything he came into contact with. Whether it be his wife at home or his opponent in the ring, either way his anger led him to violent bouts of horrifying violence that simultaneously progressed and destroyed different aspects of his life. This is the definition of the anti-hero. Jake La Motta is a despicable man, a man who makes no attempt to hide his true nature, and yet you almost feel compelled to sympathize with him despite the fact that you’ve witnessed him do terrible things. That’s what makes him so interesting. For me liking a character doesn’t even come into the equation when I look at my favorite characters of all time. Alex DeLarge: murderous psychopath. Henry Hill: drug dealer and woman beater. And now Jake La Motta: animal.
De Niro’s dedication to the craft really shows in this role. Not just because he trained to the point where he won two professional boxing tournaments and then proceeded to gain 60 pounds, a record breaking amount, to play an older La Motta. Even if you disregard all of that, you are left with one of the finest performances of all time. One might dismiss his performance as one of sheer anger, but what they fail to recognize is the great deal of restraint that is applied. At no point in Raging Bull does it feel as if he’s overracting which would be an easy thing to do. The difficult part is making it entirely believable and creating a layered performance that allows the viewer to see La Motta as more than just a monster, but as a man as well. It was a difficult task that was pulled off immaculately.
De Niro’s La Motta is complemented by a variety of perfect supporting performances coming from Joe Pesci as La Motta’s brother Joey, Cathy Moriarty as La Motta’s second wife Vickey, and Frank Vincent as an associate of Joey, Salvy. Nothing more needs to be said about the excellence of these performances as they speak for themselves.
One of this films greatest features lies behind the camera: the genius of Martin Scorsese. Allow me to be the thousandth person to say that it was genius to shoot this film in black & white. It really adds to the feel of the film as it seems grittier and fits the feel of the 40’s and 50’s well, along with resulting in some breathtaking shots. My favorite of which is the opening credits where you see a faceless boxer (Who you can tell is De Niro just by his movements) getting pumped up for a fight in the ring. The camera is unmoving through this entire segment, making De Niro the only moving part in the shot. This is where the black & white comes into play. The contrast of his darker clothes against the foggy white backdrop of the scene results in a beautiful display.
Besides just his use of black & white cinematography, Scorsese also pulled off creating some of the finest boxing sequences of all time. What it is that makes them so special? Scorsese stays close. At no point do the cameras stray away from the action. Instead they are always right up in the action moving with the punches. One of my favorite instances of this comes when (Semi-Spoilers) La Motta is fighting Sugar Ray Robinson and Robinson is just destroying La Motta’s face and the camera switches between Ray swinging and blood shooting out of La Motta’s face and flowing down his legs. It’s a brutal shot and one that I haven’t been able to shake since seeing it.
It took me far too long to finally watch this film and it was a mistake. This is a perfect of example of a master filmmaker at the peak of his craft. Not only is this the finest sports film I’ve ever seen (If you consider it a sports film), but it’s also one of the finest films I’ve ever seen.
This film makes me reevaluate every other film that I have called a masterpiece. This is the definition of a masterpiece.