Tuesday, March 18, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Raging Bull (1980)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty
Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is a hard guy to feel sorry for. He’s paranoid, he’s mean and he’s abusive and, yes, it all stems essentially from his own insecurities, but still. This is a guy who just won’t help himself, who makes the same mistakes over and over again, who shows control only when he’s in the boxing ring and spends his life outside of it relentlessly punishing himself and the people around him. And yet, by the time you get to the scene where he’s alone in a prison cell, crying and uselessly punching the concrete walls, you do feel sorry for him. Credit due to De Niro and Martin Scorsese for making that possible.
Raging Bull is easily the most poetic of all Scorsese’s films, which is surprising because LaMotta isn’t a poetic character. But when LaMotta is boxing, the film takes on this transcendent sense where even the way blood spatters looks beautiful in its way. The film is never kinder to LaMotta than when he’s in the ring, where no one, even Sugar Ray Leonard, can knock him down. Out in the world, LaMotta is getting knocked down every day – by the mobsters who want him to take a dive and keep the title shot just out of reach until he agrees, by his troubles with the law, his battle with his weight, his paranoia over the fidelity of his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) – he only ever gets a moment of peace, a moment of grace, when he’s pummelling an opponent and being pummelled in return. He enjoys the punishment of his job, seeing how much he can take and still stay standing. In the scene where he takes a dive, he just stands there against the ropes, letting the other boxer punch him over and over while berating him for not being able to get the job done. Afterwards, he sits in the locker room crying because the guy was “a bum.” He didn’t fall down, but he still lost face in the place where it means the most for him to have it.
We see LaMotta at different periods of his life: at his height, where he’s one of the best boxers in the world, and afterwards, when he’s left boxing, gained weight and begun to trade on his past life for the sake of his new one as a nightclub proprietor. His marriage, which was always strained by his inability to trust Vickie, falls apart. His relationship with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), falls apart, due primarily to LaMotta’s suspicion that Joey slept with Vickie, but it was probably only a matter of time considering the amount of abuse he’s heaped on Joey over the years. He gets arrested for having a relationship with an underage girl. He comes up with a plan to pay his bond by pawning the jewels in his title belt, which he mercilessly removes from the belt… only to be told that the jewels themselves aren’t worth as much as the belt would have been if it was intact. For me, that scene more than any other is the one where I really start to feel for LaMotta. He just doesn’t get it.
People always talk about De Niro’s physical transformation from young, fit LaMotta, to older, fatter LaMotta. It is definitely impressive, but this is a performance that amounts to more than just gaining weight. This is a fully fleshed – no pun intended – performance by De Niro, who more or less wears LaMotta’s thoughts right on his face. When he’s suspicious, we know it. When he’s struggling to understand, we know the extent to which he is struggling and the direction in which his thoughts are straying. There is never a moment when you think to yourself, “That’s De Niro.” It is always LaMotta and, essentially, two versions of LaMotta: the controlled, intuitive LaMotta in the ring, and the dangerous, out-of-control LaMotta who exists everywhere else.
Pesci and Moriarty also give excellent performances, each playing a character who loves LaMotta but becomes increasingly exasperated by his moods and inability to trust. There’s an especially great moment for Pesci at the end, when LaMotta catches up with Joey after years of estrangement and insists on a hug and Joey just stands there waiting for him to be finished with it. Pesci and De Niro play off of each other wonderfully, really giving the sense of two people with a lifelong history together.
But the acting is only half the battle, and I would be remiss if I didn't emphasize the masterful direction of Martin Scorsese, the cinematography of Michael Chapman, and the editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, who quite rightly won the Oscar for Best Editing. This is a technically beautiful movie, filmed with incredible grace and intimacy, both inside the ring and out. We're given insight into LaMotta's psyche through the way that the film always slows down whenever shooting from his perspective, as if he's memorizing details (most of the slow motion shots involve him looking at Vickie's interactions with other men). We're given further insight into LaMotta's frame of mind through the general narrowness of the composition of the shots. Everything always seems very tight, very closed in, as if to suggest the narrowness of LaMotta's vision. It's a very effective psychological movie and, without a doubt, it is my favourite of all of Scorsese’s films, perhaps my favourite of all of De Niro’s films, and probably the best film to come out in the 1980s.