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Raging Bull

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Released: 19th December 1980

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci

Certificate: 18

Reviewed By: Patrick CampbellWhen looking upon the history of cinema, it is difficult to find a relationship between actor and director as dynamic, celebrated and powerful as that between Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese.  Spanning three decades – and possibly a fourth if rumours about a film entitled “The Irishman” are true – and including films such as “Taxi Driver”, “The King of Comedy” and “Goodfellas”, the duo have together left an imprint on the film industry which will, rightly, never be forgotten.

In 1980 they paired up again for the biographical movie “Raging Bull”, a hard-hitting portrayal of Bronx born middleweight champion boxer Jake LaMotta. The film begins In Media Res in relation to his boxing career and his life, and not once does it dwell on past events. We learn nothing about LaMotta’s childhood, education, how he got into boxing, his relationship with his parents in the film – everything we learn about the man is conducted in the present. LaMotta is a giant in his sport, and through his brutality and technique in the ring, and his Mafia connections outside of it, he steadily rises through the middleweight division until he becomes champion. Much is made of LaMotta’s fearsome reputation – in one scene his brother Joey points out to him that he can’t get a fight because everyone’s running scared – so throughout the film the boxing scenes generally focus on his legendary rivalry with the great Sugar Ray Robinson, a champion courageous enough to fight the Bronx Bull six times.

“Raging Bull” is not a boxing movie however. Whilst fans of the noble art will lap up the beautifully recreated in-ring action, the film triumphs as a portrayal of a jealous, reckless, detached and at times unbearable figure, a man deemed a hero by many in regards to his craft yet seen as anything but outside the ring. The narrative may be a simple “rise and fall” story, but when a film is shot as beautifully as this is, with dialogue as crisp and piercing as this has, the clichéd structure matters not. In terms of pure cinematography, “Raging Bull” is one of the all-time greats, a genuine classic, a Scorsese masterpiece. Filmed in black and white (apart from a brief video camera scene) the film manages to create a bleak and despairing style that epitomises the character of LaMotta perfectly. This man is no idol, a realisation the viewer has been struck with long before he violently assaults his brother and knocks his wife unconscious, attacks motivated solely by misplaced jealousy.

Robert De Niro won the Best Actor Oscar for his LaMotta portrayal, the acclaimed actor perfectly framing the temperamental yet mysterious fighter. On one hand, we know LaMotta – we recognise his prowess in the ring, his flawed nature, his impulsive and angry mannerisms – on the other, we know nothing about him at all. There are no soliloquys, no tapping into his inner thoughts or beliefs. Why was he married to women he hated? Why did he have no friends? Why was he so consumed by jealousy? We don’t know, and we’ll never know, but it’s a testament to De Niro’s performance that we come away from a two hour film with these questions still bothering us.

By the end of the film, LaMotta is a pathetic figure, a washed-up bum who’s reduced to a terrible stand-up comedy and anecdotal routine in dives where no-one cares and hardly anyone is listening. He had it all, he lost it all. “Raging Bull” is not a nice film, or an upbeat one, but in terms of what it is – a grim portrayal of a failed man – it is utter perfection.

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