Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" (1980) is arguably the greatest American biopic ever made. Based on the life of boxer Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), I see the movie as a subtle character study of an unlikable man who relates to the world by giving and taking punishment. His self-destructive behavior eventually alienates all who try to know him. But "Raging Bull" is not a conventional movie. It doesn't tell us what to think or feel, and we have to figure out the mystery that is Jake La Motta for ourselves.
Although the film is about a professional prizefighter who was once the middleweight champion, it's more about La Motta's life than it is about boxing. I doubt it's just coincidence that the movie covers 14 of La Motta's fights and there are 14 Stations of the Cross. Even though Jake is far from Christ-like, given Scorsese's fascination with marrying Roman Catholic iconography to story and imagery, it occurred to me that an alternate title for the movie could be "The Passion of Jake La Motta."
In "Raging Bull," the boxing scenes are not simply action sequences; instead they are used to develop La Motta's character. He prides himself on his ability to take punishment and remain on his feet no matter what. After Sugar Ray Robinson takes his title away from him, La Motta taunts the man who has just defeated him by saying, "You never got me down, Ray. You hear me? Never got me down."
I think one of the things that makes "Raging Bull" a great movie is that it's one of the best films about brothers I've ever seen. Jake and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) are close throughout most of the movie, but Jake's jealousy ultimately poisons their relationship. I find the scene heartbreaking near the end of the film when Jake awkwardly approaches Joey after years of not speaking.
In the movie, the only person, other than Joey, who means much of anything to Jake is his second wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). One of my favorite visual details in the film is shown when Jake is courting Vickie. He and she are seen on opposite sides of a photo of Jake and Joey posed as if they are sparring, foreshadowing the future for Vickie and the two brothers.
Robert De Niro was so dedicated to a realistic portrayal of Jake La Motta that he gained over 50 pounds to play the boxer in his later years. I was not surprised that De Niro won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the role. I also found Joe Pesci completely convincing as Jake's brother, and there is terrific screen chemistry between him and De Niro. Except for Jake and Joey, there's only one other important character in the film, and I thought it was a brilliant stroke of casting to put newcomer Cathy Moriarty in the role of Jake's wife Vickie.
"Raging Bull" was shot in black-and-white, which I believe helps give it a strong 1940s feel. For the scenes where people are just talking, the visual style is reminiscent of Italian neorealism, with many scenes shot on location. But the boxing sequences are stylized, with slow motion sometimes used for dramatic effect. Thelma Schoonmaker's work on the film won her the Academy Award for Editing.
Director Martin Scorsese brought to the movie his first-hand knowledge of everyday Italian-American life. For example, the cross that once hung over Scorsese's parents' bed is seen in the film over Jake and Vickie's bed. Also, Scorsese allowed De Niro and Pesci to develop some of their dialogue via improvisation, and I think that's one of the reasons their interchanges seem so natural. Finally, Scorsese chose the soundtrack music, including the film's signature piece, the "Intermezzo" from Mascagni's 1890 opera "Cavalleria Rusticana."
A barebones DVD version of "Raging Bull" has been available since 1997, and MGM Home Entertainment released a single-disc version on February 8, 2005, that contains only the feature film and theatrical trailer. However, I recommend the two-disc Special Edition of "Raging Bull" because it is loaded with extras, including three audio commentary tracks.
One audio commentary is by director Martin Scorsese and film editor Thelma Schoonmaker. A second is by cast and crew, including producer Irwin Winkler, music producer Robbie Robertson, producer Robert Chartoff, actress Theresa Saldana, actor John Turturro, sound effects editor Frank Warner, cinematographer Michael Chapman, and casting director Cis Corman. The third audio commentary is by screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, boxer-author Jake La Motta, and La Motta's nephew Jason Lustig.
The second disc in the set contains four featurettes. The 26-minute "Before the Fight" is about the movie's preproduction, including writing and casting. The 15-minute "Inside the Ring" looks at how the fight sequences were done. The 27-minute "Outside the Ring" is basically a collection of behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Finally, the 15-minute "After the Fight" covers sound design, music, and the film's impact.
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