The violence in Raging Bull is ghastly and overdone. A nose crunches, broken for us to hear close up; copious amounts of blood gush out of orifices and gashes, drenching the ringside swells. To what purpose? There are, it seems to me, three possible motives for such displays of brutality. First, the obvious one: to exploit the worst in boxing and in us. Second, the reverse: to expose this barbaric exercise, drum up the reformers and hasten its abolition from the 20th century. Or third: as a dramatic device to inform us about the characters.
Alas, in Raging Bull, the spectacle of exaggerated violence is put to no use whatsoever. It is introduced in the same way the director of a skin flick every so often tosses in another bedroom adventure just because it's a skin flick. To me, that is asexual, just as Raging Bull is, ultimately, a-athletic, and amoral as well. This is the story of a boxer, Jake LaMotta—but what is he to boxing or boxing to him? About all the film tells us about LaMotta the middleweight is that, given his druthers, he would rather not give up sex and food before a fight. LaMotta might just as well be a bus driver.
As a man, he is revealed as scum. No one ever disputes this, including LaMotta himself, who served as technical adviser for the film. But then, none of the characters around him possesses redeeming qualities, either. As a consequence, nothing changes and the film—like a lopsided fight—could be stopped at any point without altering the outcome.
Yet what an extraordinary piece of work is Raging Bull. Has any movie ever so utterly lacked soul and yet been so rewarding? The texture of the script (by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin) is never creased. The language is so uncannily correct that no matter how filthy the dialogue, it's never profane in spirit.
The music—often dreamy, classical works played during the most brutal ring action—is elegantly jarring. The photography is black and white. There are camera tactics that toy with affectation; yet never do they cross the line. The dress—especially that of the men—is perfectly ugly, like the language. It is as if someone from wardrobe went to exactly the right hand-me-down shop to get a bunch of the clothes that Bronx Italians would have worn in the 1940s; everybody in the film dresses just so, in character.
The acting is exquisite. Vickie LaMotta, the missus, portrayed by a beautiful novice, Cathy Moriarty, is played so finely and effortlessly that either she is an absolute natural or is taking Meryl Streep pills. Joe Pesci, as LaMotta's brother Joey, is the single most appealing character, semi-scum, always with-in himself. Best of all, in a smaller role, is Nicholas Colasanto as the fixer. No actor has ever made so much of that stock figure, the small-time hood.
One can indeed say: Robert DeNiro Is Jake LaMotta! A less masterful job of acting might have obliged the director, Martin Scorsese, to make more of the character's conflicts. The prime example: the heart of the film is LaMotta's obsession that his gorgeous Vickie is cheating on him. He bores us and aggravates us with this, at last makes us detest him. During this same period, LaMotta is gypped out of his rightful shot at the middleweight title; for almost a full decade he awaits his fair due. But, unaccountably, references to this fact are underplayed in the film, and the chance to build up sympathy for a wronged man and perhaps account for his domestic paranoia is lost.
Why Scorsese wanted to saddle himself with a film portraying a despicable human is all the more baffling because the director's other instincts are so correct. Scorsese's touches are everywhere. What this man does with kitchens! There was an America that existed in kitchens, that dealt with life from out of kitchens. Scorsese has that down pat, and he doesn't need authentic costumes and oldies-but-goodies playing in the background to pull it off. He also has grasped the precise pecking order of that world: how people confronted one another, how they talked, when they backed off, where they stood.
It is no mean accomplishment to capture interrelationships of a lost subculture, but unfortunately, Jake the person never gets off the dime. So while Scorsese's film is an achievement, it could've been much more. Understand, Raging Bull doesn't lose. It just never gets the shot it deserves at the champeenship. It remains a glorious contender.