Seeing Martin Scorsese’s new film is like visiting a human zoo. That’s certainly not to say that it’s dull: good zoos are not dull. But the life we watch is stripped to elemental drives, with just enough decor of complexity—especially the heraldry of Catholicism —to underscore how elemental it basically is.
Scorsese specializes in the primitive aspects of urban life, with an emphasis on Italian-Americans. American films have developed a latter-day line in this vein: Rocky, both I and II, which twined Movieland braids around its primitivism, and The Godfather, also I and II, which aggrandized a family’s bestiality into a saga. Italian-Americans may very understandably be tired of this canted concentration on gutter and crime, but they had better brace themselves: because here it is again and—which may irritate them further—done better than ever, done excellently. Scorsese has filmed the life of the boxer Jake La Motta, his rises and falls and eventual retirement, and this time Scorsese’s work is purged of heavy symbolism, of film-school display, of facile portent. His directing is imaginative but controlled; egregious mannerisms have coalesced into a strong style. Some of Raging Bull is shocking, but all of it is irresistible.
The screenplay, based on a ghosted autobiography, was written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, both of whom have worked with Scorsese before. La Motta is played by Robert De Niro, another Scorsese veteran, and obviously the whole enterprise was built around him. Previously De Niro played demented animalistic characters for Scorsese in Mean Streets, written by Scorsese and Martin, and Taxi Driver, written by Schrader. Here they have found the best beast for De Niro in La Motta, best because free of patent psychopathy, a “normal” man capable of overpowering fury but still answerable to some social canons and therefore accessible to pathos rather than to clinical category.
They have also constructed the film—probably with fidelity to La Motta’s life but who cares? —so that the boxing ring, which occupies a lot of screen time, is almost indistinguishable in temper from much of the man’s personal life. De Niro’s La Motta is a fount of rage, a man who lives by rage or the threat of it or the tension of controlling it, a man in whom quiet means the absence of rage, but a man who has the cunning of an animal and enough capability for guilt—inculcated by family ties and implicit religion —to give him moments of remorse for his rage. All of these qualities except the last are present both in the living room and the ring; and the key achievement of the picture is that the four makers, director and writers and star, have made this zoo creature unfailingly gripping.
Partly this is because they were clever enough to start in the “present,” 1964, long after La Motta has retired from boxing, then go back for the events leading up to this point. Thus the first La Motta we see is middle-aged and fat—De Niro put on a well-publicized fifty pounds for these sequences —in a dinner-jacket, rehearsing a humorous poem for a nightclub appearance. And thus we know all through the picture that he survived and in some ways grew, because there isn’t much humor or humanity in him until the fighting stops. Throughout most of the story La Motta seems to have as simple a set of motives as one could have and stay out of a real zoo. He wants to hit and to screw —to own a woman more than to screw, apparently —and he wants peer approval by winning the middleweight championship more than he wants to fulfill any ideal of being champ. That opening glimpse helps the bulk of the picture.
But it would hold anyway, because of De Niro. Behind his false nose, he assaults us with force, engulfing force so sheer that it achieves a kind of esthetic stature. Whatever subtlety is in the performance comes from De Niro rather than the role. For instance, his use of his body. In the otherwise barren film of The Last Tycoon, De Niro gave Monroe Stahr kinetic patterns that completely expressed a man whose body was of little concern to him, whose center was in his mind and his secrets, a man who was almost reluctantly attended by his body. La Motta of course lives through his body. De Niro expresses it immediately and exquisitely.
Even more cheering is Scorsese’s growth. Little Italy, the conflict between the support and the restrictions of Catholicism, the alliances and counteralliances of family and of the Mafia are still his home ground. He tells us in the sequence under the opening credits that he is dealing with provenance and struggle: while La Motta —in slow motion—prances around a ring in a robe, warming up, the sound-track lays on the “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana. It’s a splendid fixing of the film.
Contradictorily Scorsese has both purged and complicated his filmmaking. Taxi Driver was better made than Mean Streets (I’m ignoring his films out of this vein), and Raging Bull is a huge leap. He is .still avid to move film all the time, eager to energize his screen, but instead of his former frantic cutting from long shots to closeups and back, with some reverse shots thrown in, he now more subtly cuts to shots in which the camera is already moving forward slowly. In the fight sequences, he sometimes creates the effect of putting the camera in a glove, inside a battered head, and he always keeps prime the feeling of complete physical collision. (Some of the fight shots are horrible, but they’re not out of place.) He has solved the visual problem of chronicling many fights; sometimes he varies with slow motion, sometimes with a series of stills, sometimes with isolated successive frames like the ones of astronauts on the moon. Never does he let us anticipate wearily that there are more fights to come; he never lets the matter get near tedium, and he never uses trickery that distracts. These sequences are interesting variations, like a good composer’s variations on a theme.
There are some bumps in the story line, and they may be connected with Scorsese’s filmmaking process rather than the script. For instance, La Motta throws a fight for the mob and gets into trouble with ring authorities; his subsequent reinstatement is badly skimped. Later we see him at his expensive Miami home and the nightclub he owns, yet moments later, when he needs $10,000 bail, he can’t raise it. Scorsese fell so in love with the making of this film, I think, with the actual shooting of scenes and sequences —such fine small touches as a scene with an Irish gambler at a bar, with a sports official in a tunnel under a stadium —that he found himself with more of a jigsaw to assemble in the editing room than do most directors. What holds this picture together more than its story line is its stylistic consistency, and style here means more than cinematic syntax, it means fire and personality. I’ve a hunch, too, that the result owes a great deal to its editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, that she found ways to fuse the fiery particles into a flow and to make an organism out of what may have been digressions and lingerings in the shooting.
But one laurel must rest on Scorsese’s head alone, praise for the acting—that is, for the casting and for the guidance of the actors. Many scenes are played in a very low key, not as patent Paul Muni preparations for outburst but to draw us into privacies, to take us beneath the skin. The timing of the dialogue is excellent: note the meeting between La Motta and his future (second) wife. Or a later scene when she urges him to telephone his brother and make up a quarrel. They are standing together silently after a boxing match. After a moment she suggests the call; another pause; she suggests it again. De Niro doubtless could have felt the timing on his own, but Cathy Moriarty, who had never acted before, must have needed help. Some of it, I’m sure, came from De Niro (people who have worked with him have talked about his generosity), but there must have been real help from Scorsese.
Moriarty is physically perfect for the part and conveys the precise sense of a girl who is sufficiently bright to know that being petted and desired isn’t enough. As La Motta’s brother, Joe Pesci is perfect: feisty, street-honorable, glumly humorous. The many, many fast exchanges between the brothers sound to me like improvisations based on a script —sharp pickups, repetitions and overlaps, quiet and loud amazements. (From first line of the film to last, the language is as it ought to be—vile.) And all the Mafia figures, who are not explicitly called such, are lushly handsome and have voices like top-grade olive oil.
Inevitably De Niro’s role has covert reminders of Brando, plus two overt ones. After the worst battle between husband and wife, she begins to pack, preparing to leave. Subdued now, La Motta appeals to her, mostly with body language, and they embrace, like Stanley and Stella, in A Streetcar Named Desire. And just before the end, the obese La Motta, rehearsing his act in a nightclub dressing room, does Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront. Of course it’s not as good as Brando —it couldn’t be, De Niro is playing La Motta playing Brando—but it’s a nice goodbye wink at the audience.
I have to hope that De Niro will make more films with other directors: though he and Scorsese clearly work well together, they stay within a relatively narrow spectrum, and the limits are demonstrably Scorsese’s, not De Niro’s. But within these limits, Raging Bull is electrifying.
Except for a flash of color in the credits and some color “home movies” used as a bridge, the film is in black and white, shot by Michael Chapman with plenty of evocative shadows, except for the ring which is drenched in scary glare. Some verses from John IX, 24-26, are appended at the end, but I don’t grasp their relevance. More, I think it may be misguided to try to crystallize what the film is “about.” Attempts have already been made to explain La Motta’s character as reactive to the Italian-American atmosphere, but the script wouldn’t have to be much different fundamentally if the protagonist were a black or an Irish Catholic or a Jew. La Motta is to be taken as given, a chunk of temperament like a character in a medieval morality play.
Finally Raging Bull is “about” what we see and hear, elevating its rather familiar materials through conviction and the gush of life. After the sociopsychological explanations have limped on, this film, like some (though not most) good art works, is finally “about” the fact that it incontrovertibly exists and, by existing, moves us.
The New Republic, December 6, 1980