Arts & Leisure

After 40 years ‘Raging Bull’ is still a masterpiece and enigmatic, too!

'RAGING BULL' OPENED to mixed reviews in 1980. Our reviewer got to see it on the big screen at last week's Sunset Series at Swift House Inn/Summer of Scorsese.

“Raging Bull” is a terrible movie.

For one, it’s just not that great. How about that Robert De Niro guy in the lead? Poorly miscast. Hayden Christenson would have played a more convincing Jake LaMotta than Mr. De Niro. I can’t believe this movie was made by Martin Scorsese, the same guy who made the 1977 gem “New York, New York.”

Just kidding!

“Raging Bull” is a perfect movie that accomplishes each and every brutal task it sets out to do, and it was great getting to see it on the big screen at the second installment of the Sunset Series at Swift House Inn/Summer of Scorsese this past Thursday. 

Opening to mixed reviews in 1980, the legendary film — a boxing drama starring Robert De Niro as the middleweight champion Jake LaMotta — is often considered one of Scorsese’s masterpieces.

And a masterpiece it is. But, more interestingly: “Raging Bull” is also a very enigmatic movie.

For one, it’s a sports biopic that has little interest in the nuts-and-bolts of boxing. The only real training scene we see Jake in, for instance, is when he rapidly wails on his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) shortly after the boxer glimpses a wise guy (Frank Vincent) who may or may not be playing Jake for the cuckold with his teenage wife, Vicki.

Meanwhile, the titular bull’s wife almost steals the show. Catherine Moriarty’s performance as Vicki is incredible in its use of understatement that finally boils over after years of mistreatment. Although her character becomes, painfully, a prop for Joey’s anger and later on Jake’s abuse, Moriarty, who was barely 20 years old when the film was released in 1980, offers what might be one of the most biting monologues in any movie I’ve seen. 

Also fantastic is Joe Pesci as Joey, Jake’s brother who’s pretty much as repugnant as the protagonist. Interestingly, Pesci’s character halfway through “Raging Bull” brutally attacks a mafioso played by Frank Vincent, a scene that would play out again 11 years later in Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.”

But, if it isn’t boxing, what is “Raging Bull” really about? Insecurity, perhaps. Freud would certainly have had a ball analyzing some of the movie’s greatest lines from its malignantly jealous protagonist. Like our 45th President, LaMotta pays a fair amount of attention to the expanse of his paws, lamenting to his brother: “I got these small hands. I got a little girl’s hands.”

If anything, “Raging Bull” — one of the most beautiful movies ever made — might just be style for style’s sake. Forget the boxing matches, or the one-two punch from Sugar Ray Robinson where LaMotta’s blood sprays into the audience. Just watch the everyday life scenes.

Take, for instance, how Scorsese puts us into the middle of a community swing dance at a church in the Bronx. Suddenly, the Raging Bull sees his wife’s possible lover approaching his table, framed in slow motion. The band’s piano rises to a rapid fortissimo. Vincent’s footsteps boom on the audio. De Niro’s just about to lose it, glowering at the camera as he raises a drink in a reluctant toast to the gangsters sitting across the bar.

Perhaps the answer to the riddle that is “Raging Bull” lies in LaMotta’s later years, when De Niro mumbles his routine in a green room before a stand-up show. Scorsese invokes Shakespeare’s wretched Richard III when De Niro recites in front of the mirror, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”

After years of eating, drinking, fighting and hating, LaMotta’s soul by the end of the film has become as deformed and unfinished as Richard III’s ever was.

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