New York

Raging Bull, Directed By Martin Scorsese

United Artists

It may not be saying much to call Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull the best Hollywood movie of 1980. (Aside from the scandalous Dressed to Kill, the likeable Melvin and Howard, and isolated passages from Popeye, The Big Red One or The Shining, what else was there?) But it is also the film in which Scorsese finally redeems the promise shown by his 1973 Mean Streets, an earlier composition in New York Italian jive and choreographed hysteria.

Raging Bull is based on the autobiography of the Bronx prizefighter Jake La Motta, an unpleasant character in the film who was apparently even worse in reality. It’s been pointed out that Scorsese doesn’t know much about boxing—virtually every punch in the film is thrown at someone’s head—but, as Mean Streets already demonstrated, what he does know he knows very well. The film’s seven or eight fight scenes are masterfully constructed out of exploding flashbulbs, artful slow motion, bravura camera placement, and fragmented montage, building in hyperbole until La Motta’s final demolition at the hands of a demonic portrayal of Sugar Ray. Shot in saturated blacks and blinding whites, with the shallow foreground lighting of a tabloid newsphoto, the rest of the film looks nearly as hallucinated. Scorsese maintains a controlled expressionism throughout, based on the subtle use of offspeed motion, epic camera movement in cramped spaces, and sudden mega-close-ups. The soundtrack is a complicated mix that segues from swing music to an amplified sock on the jaw without missing a beat, while the dialogue is a street Beckett tangle of frenzied inarticulateness (“I’m a jerk? You’ re a fucking asshole!”).

While Raging Bull is well-stocked with Catholic relics—the monk-like training robe La Motta wears, the holy pictures that festoon his bedroom, the sexual abstinence he neurotically enforces, the blood that drips from the boxing-ring ropes like tears down the cheek of the Virgin of Guadalupe—Scorsese is after something more elemental. There’s a fight of one sort or another in virtually every scene, and in or out of the ring, they’re almost all fueled by La Motta’s sexual anxiety. Vickie La Motta (Cathy Moriarty)—the only blonde in the neighborhood—is an absolute Other. Raging Bull is a post-feminist film in the sense that Scorsese is trying to explain how men are. The film may seem like a celebration of terminal macho, but its excesses put it so deep in the hole that ultimately it can only be read as an exposé.

For all its action, the film is remarkably distanced. Scorsese has a tendency to dance away from the violence he depicts, to the elegiac strains of an incongruously sweet (and hence, effective) musical score. As for Robert De Niro, one recognizes the brilliance of his performance without ever confusing him with the character “Jake La Motta.” The 50 pounds he put on to play the middle-aged La Motta are like a visceral metaphor for the mortification of the flesh that fighters endure. And when De Niro-as-La Motta does a clumsy impersonation of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, the Pirandellian resonance actually gives Kazan’s film a reason for being.

J. Hoberman