“Raging Bull” (1980)

December 29, 2008 at 6:05 pm (Cinema, Reviews & Articles)

Gene Siskel’s review from the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 19, 1980…


After seeing Raging Bull in New York three weeks ago, I wrote that it is one of the best American films of the year, a superb creation of the finest acting-directing team in the United States, Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese.
Since, friends who have seen the picture came away admiring it but pointing out some flaws. The major objection seems to be that the film, which tells the story of brutish ’40s boxer Jake La Motta, doesn’t have a clean, straight-forward narrative line. (It’s a problem that has been noted in the other four Scorsese-De Niro films, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and New York, New York)
Even granting this objection  which I’m not quick to do
Raging Bull still stands as a superior achievement of film and acting art. Frankly, in 1980 you could take most Hollywood films and throw them in a blender and it wouldn’t make that much difference how you reassembled them. Safe and boring describes most Hollywood products, with major stars selling their artistic souls in the name of sequels and big-budget action.
What Raging Bull does so well is venture into the dark side of the human animal, in this case, the animal that was La Motta, the onetime middleweight champion who has admitted throwing a championship fight and who, in his private life, was a bullying louse to his first and second wives.
Raging Bull is a portrait of an animal, and it undoubtedly will be too violent, too dark, too ugly for many moviegoers, who can take revenge into the lighter side of human nature in Nine to Five and Seems Like Old Times.
But if you like a movie down-and-dirty, Raging Bull is it. Filmed in black-and white, and shockingly well acted by De Niro, Raging Bull suggests that if you are looking for the source of evil in the world, you don’t have to look any further than yourself. It’s inside you or it isn’t. And it comes out or it doesn’t.
With Jake La Motta, according to Scorsese and his screenwriters, it came out a lot. De Niro’s La Motta is a paranoid bully, who drops his first wife like a hot rock after spotting a blond teen-age vision in a white bathing suit (newcomer Cathy Moriarty in a sizzling screen debut) at a neighborhood Bronx swimming pool.
De Niro’s sexy pickup scene with Moriarty-one of the most supercharged scenes in the movie-is filled with the same kind of focused energy that De Niro exhibited when he picked up another young blond woman-in-white (Cybill Shepherd) in Taxi Driver.
After the pickup scene, Raging Bull moves along two tracks, as De Niro battles his opponents and mobsters in the ring and his new young wife at home.

Occasionally the two worlds come together. Paranoid about his wife flirting with other men, De Niro punishes her after she makes a chance remark about one of his opponents as having a pretty face. That remark results in a freeze on the homefront and De Niro’s crushing his pretty-face opponent in the ring.
Much of what is on the screen is true. La Motta himself has admitted that, saying that he was a louse then. (Of course, he has a financial interest in praising the movie – 3 percent of the net profits.)
While watching De Niro exploding at his wife and manager-brother (Joe Pesci), your thoughts may wander to the large number of home disturbances and family gunshot victims that regularly occur during the year and seem to increase during the holiday season.
De Niro as La Motta regularly explodes into the kind of fit that nowadays typically results in someone getting shot. At one point in the film he bashes his head against a wall, crying out, “I’m not that bad. I’m not that bad.” But, frankly, we can’t agree. De Niro as La Motta is an animal.
Raging Bull has been beautifully filmed by Scorsese, again working with his Taxi Driver cameraman Michael Chapman. The film’s boxing scenes are striking dramatizations of La Motta’s ’40s fights, and the impact is greater than documentary footage would have been.
The savage ferocity of boxing never has been better depicted in a fight film. At one point, Chapman’s camera seemingly falls to the canvas along with one of La Motta’s opponents.
De Niro has to be the odds-on favorite to win the Academy Award as best actor, which will cap an already extraordinary career for the 37-year-old star.
Much has been made of his gaining 55 pounds during the production to capture La Motta’s physical deterioration. The guess is here, however, than even without the weight gain-which is shocking on film-De Niro would have been able to communicate what La M
otta was going through. There doesn’t seem to be an emotion that De Niro can’t handle. De Niro would. Young actors ought to be studying him the way actors in the 50’s and 60’s studied Marlon Brando.
The film’s supporting cast is equally distinguished, which is a tribute to Scorsese’s ability to cast well and allow talent to grow. Moriarty is a true discovery, and Pesci is equal to De Niro in every scene they have together.
Together with Scorsese and Chapman providing a close, musky, black-and-white environment, De Niro, Moriarty, and Pesci create a world in which violence can explode at any moment. Which, come to think of it, is the world of today.

Gene Siskel


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