Ten years ago it kicked up raging critical debate. Now it’s been chosen best film of the decade by at least one national poll of critics. And Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (at the Westside Pavilion) is back on the big screen again, one of the bloodiest and most beautiful reflections on atonement in the Scorsese canon.
Ten years have dimmed nothing of “Raging Bull’s” black-and-white perfection. It is still one of cinema’s most breathtaking films; those inky shadows, that deliberate graininess, the specific poetry of its images as Scorsese sets a time and a place--the Bronx in the 1940s and ‘50s--irrevocably in our eyes and in our memories.
The bull, for those who may never have seen the film, is Jake La Motta. One writer described La Motta’s life in a sentence: “A Bronx-bred boxer who fought his way to the middleweight championship in 1948 and just as aggressively went on to lose everything he’d won.”
“Raging Bull” opens with what must be one of the most luxurious title sequences in memory--a vision of the young, prideful boxer in his flashy leopard-Dynel robe, warming up in a corner of the ring to an oozing bit of “Cavalleria Rusticana” on the sound track. It’s dreamlike, mythical. Then we move to the scenes that frame the picture, a grotesquely fat 42-year-old La Motta in 1964, rehearsing for his one-man show, reading from Shakespeare, Paddy Chayefsky and from Budd Schulberg’s “On the Waterfront.”
And from that we go into a roughly chronological account of the fighter’s life, bound tightly with his younger brother Joey’s (Joe Pesci). Already married, Jake dallies with, then marries, a baby-blond from the neighborhood, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), then torments them both with every jealous fear a sexually abstaining athlete must be prey to--and a few more. With La Motta, it pushes into the provinces of Othello and paranoia.
We see La Motta’s squishy, violent bouts, each match doled out under the supervision of the local gangsters who control the fight “game.” Admittedly, these fights are staged as melodrama, instructive melodrama with gouts of spouting blood. But in contrast to the heightened theatricality in the ring, Scorsese and his writers, Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, reveal these mobsters with a nice street-savvy, every friendly insinuation perfectly pegged. The most memorable of this memorable bunch, who might just have had their flash-photos taken by Weegee, is the gray-haired Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto), capo of the territory.
Strangely enough, an extra decade may have changed how audiences react to Jake La Motta, certainly one of the screen’s least lovable figures. If, to some, he seemed simply brutish and stupid in 1980, well, we’ve had a decade full of hulks more brutish and far more stupid, and they’ve become the era’s movie heroes. Not one of them had the frailties, the self-knowledge that make La Motta’s fall so human and so painful. And none of them were played by Robert De Niro.
This is epic De Niro, one of his Academy Award winners, a role into whose unrecognizability he disappeared into for La Motta’s last, ballooning period. Jake is a crude bully and a wife-beater and at a crucial point in his career he takes a dive, but in his mind there’s an almost invisible line that separates him from becoming what he’s called, an animal. The beauty of De Niro’s performance is that--some of the time--we can still see the line.
We watch as La Motta’s mind absorbs a bit of information, his wife’s unthinking word or phrase, for example; watch as that bit is acted upon by the jealous bile that sloshes around inside him, then sit fearfully as he moves off to act upon his worst interpretation of that news. It’s terrifying.
And right up there with De Niro’s performance are two brilliant pieces of work at opposite ends of the acting scale. Joe Pesci, as Joey, is all rhythm and action; as the brothers get into the jab and counterpunch of these Italian Bronx cadances, Pesci is De Niro’s great foil. Newcomer Cathy Moriarty as Vickie is watchfulness and contemplation; married at 15, she learns to face down her dangerous husband. Scorsese has made her into a white-blond ‘40s icon in the same way that Lana Turner shimmered in the mind’s eye after “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Lana Turner with Gene Tierney’s overbite.
A miracle of observation--and editing--"Raging Bull” not only works off old smoldering ‘40s movies we carry in our heads, but it creates a whole new set of movie-visions, memories for the next generation. That Mafioso hangout, the Debonair Social Club, is captured with one shot of a thick cappuccino cup. The still life of a steam iron, a cheap coffee pot and a few empty wooden hangers in the backstage of La Motta’s dressing room tells us everything about that place but its smell.
Many of “Raging Bull’s” artists were recognized in 1980, most of them not definitively enough. Absolutely right that Thelma Schoonmaker should have gotten an Academy Award for this brilliant editing, particularly when the finished film is compared to the written script. Absolutely, terribly wrong that Michael Chapman’s amazing photography would be nominated and not win--but that’s the black-and-white ghetto most of the time. The same is true about Pesci’s nominated supporting performance, and Moriarty’s, and the marvelous sound work by Donald Mitchell, Bill Nicholson, Donald Kimball and Les Lazarowitz, all of which went unhonored. Shall we, in retrospect, consider the winning picture and director, “Ordinary People” and Robert Redford, and the nominated pair, “Raging Bull” and Martin Scorsese?
There’s something in the Scorsese-De Niro pairing that unfailingly brings out an edge of unpredictability and danger. That chemistry was at its most bizarre in “The King of Comedy” and probably at its scariest in “Taxi Driver,” but with La Motta’s pure strength added to his emotional instability, you get “Raging Bull’s” lethally combustible set-up. It’s what makes the closing of the film so unexpectedly moving. La Motta’s flat rehearsal of Brando’s “I couldda been a contendah” speech somehow becomes Jake’s own rueful self-acceptance.
A United Artists release. Producers Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff. Director Martin Scorsese. Produced in association with Peter Savage. Screenplay by Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin. Based on the book “Raging Bull,” by Jake La Motta with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage. Camera Michael Chapman. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Associate producer Hal W. Polaire. Makeup created by Michael Westmore. Sound, Les Lazarowitz, Michael Evje. Costumes Richard Bruno, John Boxer. With Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, Frank Adonis.
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).