Nothing better defines the traits of a Martin Scorsese film than the grief, guilt, and anger of his own subjects – and Raging Bull is his most brash film of the sort. In telling the story of the self-destructive boxer’s life, Martin Scorsese does not hold back from showing you the sort of person that Jake La Motta was, but the film also strikes its own viewers in that same manner which Taxi Driver had done so: you can’t help but feel drawn to the entire world around La Motta feeling sorry for everyone around him, but also through means of confronting La Motta at his absolute worst. All of this would be more than enough to define what is arguably the most difficult film of Martin Scorsese’s career, but it also resulted in one of his finest films too.
There’s no introduction to Jake La Motta more fitting than the sight of himself in the boxing ring, with the operatic intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana playing as the credits keep going. As we see him in his later life, preparing for a comedy routine, this is where we cut back to seeing him in the boxing ring again, after having faced his first loss. This would be more than enough in order to give you a picture of the life that Jake La Motta had also lived at home, he was a man with a very violent temper – and was often going to take it out even on those whom he loved most. With all of this being Jake La Motta’s own story, Martin Scorsese keeps him under a distinctive light where you feel himself being separated from the world around him, capturing a highly complicated case of a man who was awful to those whom he thought he loved most to show what it feels like to push everything away – though we ask ourselves, to what cost?
It’s easy for one to see why this would be the most emotionally taxing film in Martin Scorsese’s long career, but it’s not one that makes you feel for Jake La Motta – which would be the greatest challenge for Scorsese to face. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing (in the start of what would also become many collaborations since) deftly blends together Jake’s life in the boxing ring with his own domestic life, akin to a mirror that revels in how he continually destroys the world around himself. You feel Jake La Motta’s world as one that is continually defined and ruled by the violence he shrouds himself within, and the self-loathing effect it left upon the people around him. There’s never a moment where you’re being made to feel sorry for Jake, but Scorsese also shows the vulnerability in the worst of his outbursts as a means for his audiences to picture themselves within that position, creating a more taxing ride as a result.
With the many iconic characters that Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese have created over the years, there’s no performance that quite matches what De Niro brings to the screen as Jake La Motta. Yet the way Martin Scorsese creates an entire world around how awful Jake La Motta is gives Robert De Niro so much more room to bring out a complicated picture of extreme self-loathing and pity. It’s never easy to stick around and continuously watch someone like Jake La Motta continually destroy their own worlds because of where they feel their motivations are rooted: you feel it as much in the boxing ring as you do inside his domestic life. Scorsese never justifies his actions, but you mix that together with the emotional honesty of De Niro’s work to bring such a destructive figure to the screen to create a scathing critique of the insecurities that build up toxic masculinity.
Everything about the making of Raging Bull has been so difficult for Martin Scorsese, and it shows in every frame. It was such a taxing experience for Scorsese, he was certain he would not be able to make another major feature film following Raging Bull. This clearly informs the point of view that he takes when telling Jake La Motta’s story, heightening the perspective of toxicity that he builds for himself from the first frame to last. From the black-and-white cinematography, you also see that his celebrity status poises himself as something of a myth in his own head, adding more grit to the violent world that La Motta had built himself. Yet it also highlights his obsessive attitude, whether it be within the ring, never shying away from the bloodiest results, or how he defines himself having fallen in love with Vicki for the first time. It’s the mind of a repulsive man you’re watching, but also coming to understand – which becomes the greatest achievement on behalf of Scorsese.
Yet it’s undeniably inspiring what can be made out of all that Scorsese has laid out in telling the story of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. As difficult a film as this may be to watch because of what Jake La Motta continuously brought upon himself, Raging Bull is an unflinching portrait of grief, pity, and self-destruction – akin to a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s a heartbreaking film to watch, when you’re picturing yourself as being one who was ever involved within Jake La Motta’s world, but also how La Motta’s obsessions in and out of the ring would ultimately lead to his greatest downfall. A film that is every bit as difficult to watch as it was difficult for Martin Scorsese to tackle, Raging Bull is one of the finest biopics ever made, but also one of the greatest films ever made in any genre.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via MGM/UA.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin, from the book Raging Bull: My Story by Jake La Motta, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage
Produced by Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff
Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, Frank Vincent
Release Date: December 19, 1980
Running Time: 129 minutes