Raging Bull (1980)

March 9, 2010

Shut up. You just shut up. I’ll fucking take care of you later.

Raging Bull is a Martin Scorsese-directed film starring Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, the “Bronx Bull”, Middleweight Champion of the world. It’s based on LaMotta’s 1970 autobiography, though much has been compressed, amalgamated or extrapolated.

I find it a little hard to write about this movie, due to the level of internal conflict it has generated in me. I can’t see how anyone could love this movie. There’s nothing lovable about it – no Jimmy Stewart being “Aw shucks” honest, no Rosalind Russell being smart and funny. De Niro’s LaMotta is a man trapped by his own insecurity, his own inability to communicate and his own violence. In many ways, this is the most violent movie I’ve ever seen – it’s in almost every scene, almost every frame, except for the ones set later in LaMotta’s life, where he’s scratching a living as a poor stand-up comic. The violence of the ring, the violence of LaMotta’s assaults on his wife and brother, and violence that is barely restrained, but seethes under the surface, leaving you almost wanting it to break out, so clear is the tension.

It’s a desperately sad movie, too. LaMotta has almost nothing sympathetic about him, but I ended up wishing that there was some other way for him to be, some way for him to break out of the world he lived in.

A while back I read an LJ post that I’ve lost the link to, about the prevalent “default” male view of women, that of objects to be pursued, but once acheived, to be hated and shunned. I couldn’t help but think about that while watching Raging Bull – LaMotta pursues the 15-year-old Vicki, eventually marrying her, and almost immediately is insecure about her, convinced she is cheating on him, unsure about his sexual relations with her, violent and abusive towards her.

De Niro is astonishing. What’s most interesting is that, playing a character called the Raging Bull, whose life is filled with violence and with anger, he conspicuously /doesn’t/ rage. Even when LaMotta has lost his temper, launching an attack on his brother, there’s a distance and reserve about De Niro that makes it all the more chilling. And his ability to work with subtext, to communicate more than the words on the page can – or even the opposite to the words on the page, is stunning. And everybody else (Cathy Moriaty as Vicki, Joe Pesci as Joey especially) is nearly as good.

I can’t love Raging Bull. I can’t see how anyone could list it in their “favourite movies”. If I go back and rewatch it, and I probably will, it will be because there is power in it. Power and truth. It’s that truth that’s so unsettling, makes the violence so difficult to watch… and possibly makes you think about the relationships you have, and the relationships you’ve seen.

Could I be like Jake LaMotta? I think not. But I couldn’t say that I haven’t felt some of the issues he faced, share some of the same weaknesses. Like Easy Rider, I don’t think I’ll forget Raging Bull in a hurry.

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