Raging Bull (1980)

“Friends. They’re in a huddle. Big business meeting. By the pool, they sit around and talk. Big deals. They make sure she can hear. Big Man. Get the fuck outta here. Big shot. Get ’em all in a back room, smack ’em around, no more big shot, without his gun. They’re tough guys. They’re all tough guys.”

‘Raging Bull’, directed by Martin Scorsese in 1980, is an American biopic focusing on the career of Jake LaMotta, an Italian American middleweight boxer, played by Robert De Niro. The film follows LaMotta through the 1940s and 1950s as he battles through opponents to win the title, flirts with gangsters who try to control his career and as he experiences the highs and lows in his personal relationships with his brother Joey, played by Joe Pesci, and his girlfriend Vikki, played by Cathy Moriarty. It’s a brutal movie, both visually with the visceral fight scenes, and emotionally, with an unflinching depiction of LaMotta’s fall from grace. The film is told in flashback, framed by LaMotta in 1964, overweight and embittered. De Niro is rightly praised for his physical transformation as both the match-fit boxer and the over-the-hill, fleshy, LaMotta, but his refusal to give the character any kind of sympathetic edge is also a masterful piece of acting. Scorsese famously didn’t have any interest in boxing, but this seems to perversely improve the film, the fight scenes are not taken for granted or treated reverentially, but instead the director taps into the basic imagery of the moment: the blood spray, the confusion, the tangle of bodies, the sweat. All this gives the film a kind of detail that is both disturbing and absorbing. Directed just after his open and unusual diversion into the road-movie genre with ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’, this feels like a return to the realism, darkness and claustrophobia of Scorsese’s earlier films. Ironically, given the dark and downbeat subject, this was also the film that dragged the director out of life-threatening addiction.

Would I recommend it? ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ is more fun, and I’m not a fan of boxing, but the power of the film and the performances is undeniable. Watch in a double bill either with ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ for contrast, or David O. Russell’s ‘The Fighter’ from 2010 to see what it inspired.

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