Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer:Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin; Raging Bull: My Story by Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage
Cinematographer: Michael Chapman
Producer: Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff
by Jon Cvack
Every time I think about this movie I picture the first Cinema Studies class I took in high school, in which our teacher Mr. Powers could only show us select scenes. When a student asked what it was rated, he looked at the box and said PG with a grin, leaving me furious over why we couldn’t watch the whole thing. Obviously, not seeing the movie, I didn’t really get the joke.
Like any great film it gets better with age, as the idea of this coming out in 1980 blows my mind more now than any other time I’ve watched it. After my love affair with Italian Neo-Realism, buying Rossellini's Criterion War Trilogy and working my way through each movie from some book my sister bought me about Italian Neo-Realism (Bitter Rice was one of my favorites), I admire the genre’s ability to capture and document the history of post-WWII Europe and the devastating effect it had upon towns and people. The classic story of Rossellini using short ends of film to finish filming Rome, Open City might have been one of the first examples of Rodriguez/Linklater inspiration to aspiring filmmakers everywhere. The stories are often simple, focused on the poor and working class, which had largely been ignored up until that point. The classic note that Scorsese had written to film students contains at least three of these films. I recall an interview with the guy saying how he’d always get excited to buy the latest tv guide to find the Italian films he could watch on the small 10” television his family owned. When people want to say they’re pissed that movie theaters are going away and it’ll hurt filmmakers, consider that this is the format where one of the greatest fell in love with cinema.
Seeing all his usual supporting performers - Joseph Bono, Frank Vincent, Frank Adonis - placed within a flawlessly recreated Italian Neo Realistic style left me in awe. And I know that that sounds like one of the most pretentious and uninspired things I could probably ever say in an essay about Scorsese, but to be able to understand what he accomplished is so fucking cool when you know where it stems from. It looks like you’re watching a European film from the early 1950s. And if that’s still pretentious, it looks like you’re watching a movie made in a completely different time period. A Christmas Story would accomplish the same thing three years later, looking like it was filmed in the 1950s. I actually think this is what a movie like Allied did so poorly, in that it didn’t try and make itself look like it was from its Hitchcock/Reed WWII spy thriller. It just took the storyline, but none of the style, when the equation needed to be flipped. Both A Christmas Story and Raging Bull are visual time machines. They brought in fresh stories and placed them within an older style. Thinking back, a few other films would accomplish this from then on: The Master, Buffalo ‘88, It Follows, and No are a handful I can name
It leaves you wondering how that conversation must have gone, saying you want to make a boxing movie with a classical style, shot in mostly black and white. It’s an easy joke, but it’s faith in this type of material that leaves me thinking those were better days. The risk of making something like this today would just be too high. It then leaves me kind of sad thinking that there is another Scorsese out there who wants to do an equally ambitious project, and are things so bad that he can’t? It makes me appreciate the movie all the more so - for being able to even exist at all.
Of course there’s the characters, and their fusillade of profanity and misogyny, which like Taxi Driver and Travis Bickle, leaves me wondering why so many people identify with this movie? It’s been so long since I’ve seen this that it provided that strange shift in perspective that some movies do, where once you related to one side of the story or characters and now the other. I always remembered a bunch of badass dialogue and incredible boxing scenes. I never really grasped how sad LaMotta’s character actually was. Contrary to all the discipline he has to train, Jake has an absolute inability to control his wandering thoughts about Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). He distrusts everyone, even Joey, where in that classic scene Jake accuses his brother of fucking his wife. Throughout all this, Vickie plays along, trying her hardest to be good to him, all while he continues to abuse her. I loved watching Moriarty explain herself truthfully, with a calm and objective tone, simply laying out the facts, which seemed to get under Jake’s skin even more.
It almost goes with mediocre books making great movies; the same goes for past celebrities (whether Raging Bull or Boogie Nights). The movie is far greater than the man, and yet it’s scenes with that man that we celebrate. What is it about De Niro's performance that draws us in to watch, no matter how far it goes? He is an impotent man, and we’re watching him implode, with each scene between him and Joey taking our breath away. There’s a truth that’s captured; honoring the spirit of Neo-Realism (had to refer to it one more time), along with the photography, score, performances, style that all add up, capturing that vision, to something that feels so real; on the precipice between humor and tragedy, gently tottering back and forth between the two.
Raging Bull is a movie that leaves you wondering if there’ll ever be another film like it. To hold such a strong place in culture - and for being built on such artistry and craftsmanship - deserve every bit of praise. It leaves me nostalgic. Not for a time, but for a possibility. Like the greatest films, it inspires you to want to make something.
BELOW: Few filmmakers can combine such an obscure style with great performances and create a scene that ranks amongst the greatest of all time
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual errors or corrections on the contact page
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.