Let’s Talk About… ‘Raging Bull’ (1980)

Starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci​​​ Directed by Martin Scorsese

Film #9 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every Thursday FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Hey everyone, 1 2 3 4 here.

The film I’ve chosen to review for FilmExodus’ top 100 series is pretty close to the top: #4 on AFI’s 2007 list, up twenty slots from 1997 (and also the second youngest on the top 10, after Schindler’s List) and is currently #12 on IMDb’s Top 250. Usually the reason to do write-ups like this is to talk about a classic favorite, a movie you know well and revisit often, and to talk about what it means to you every time you watch it, but I specifically chose to write about Scorsese’s Raging Bull because I had never seen it before (I know, I know) and this series of articles on AFI’s greatest movies list was a great excuse to finally watch it.

It should be made clear that this movie is not about boxing, nor is it about an ambitious underdog working hard to achieve his dream a la Rocky. Scorsese even repeatedly turned down shooting the script because he disliked boxing: “I always thought that boxing was boring… It was something I couldn’t, wouldn’t grasp.” It was only after Scorsese nearly died from a drug overdose that he was inspired by Jake LaMotta’s story, seeing boxing as allegory for life’s struggles:

“I didn’t understand what the ring was. I couldn’t interpret it in my life… but I think at that time I was taking it too literally. Ultimately I came to understand that the ring is everywhere. It depends on how much of a fighter you are in life. The hardest opponent you have is yourself.”

The fact that Scorsese didn’t particularly enjoy boxing matches shows in the way he shot them: Michael Chapman’s cinematography, which is at its best during these scenes, does not glamorize the sport but emphasizes the brutality of it, making us flinch at every blow, recoil at every spurt of blood and feel the suffering of both LaMotta and his opponents. It is also noteworthy that the only part of the film shot in color is the montage of home movies depicting LaMotta happier years as his career grew and is family formed.

Out of all the Scorsese films I’ve seen, this one might be the most intimate and personal, delving into the life of a protagonist who isn’t easy to like: De Niro’s Jake LaMotta is in a constant state of anger, berates and beats his wife and does many questionable things. LaMotta is not only the architect of his rise in the world of boxing, but he is also the cause of his own fall from grace, both in the sporting world and as a family man. He is a deeply insecure and jealous man whose fear of losing the people he loves ironically leads to that very result. Scorsese uses the camera to suggest that LaMotta is his own worst enemy: The famous opening credits scene which depicts him shadow boxing alone in the ring, when he repeatedly bangs his head against a jail cell wall and the ending scene where he repeats Marlon Brando’s On The Waterfront monologue to a mirror (De Niro loves talking to mirrors apparently) berating himself for ending up where he is.

Despite all this Scorsese and De Niro manage to make us cheer for his triumphs and empathize with him for his failures, reminding us that even humans who do reprehensible things are humans. I can definitely see why this is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. This is an update of the kind of story a man that Citizen Kane first mastered: An ambitious and flawed character rises to fame and fortune and ends up alone because of his demons.

For further reading, I recommend Roger Ebert’s original 1980 review when its status as a classic hadn’t yet been cemented.

Although very considered a classic and featuring incredible cinematography, oddly enough Raging Bull isn’t often referenced in pop culture, though the opening credits are instantly recognizable. To conclude, here’s an analysis by Art of the Title.