A man exorcises his inner demons of insecurity and jealousy, by taking it out on his opponents in the boxing ring. But what happens, when he is unable to distinguish between his professional and private life. When he imagines life itself to be a boxing ring, and ends up trusting none and losing every one? When he is unable to control his own inner demons in his life, and ends up totally ruining his life?
Raging Bull(1980) , the biopic of real life boxer Jake La Motta , does not offer just a ring side view of the boxing feats, but also that of a man’s downfall and descent into the depths. Martin Scorsese teams up with Robert De Niro after Mean Streets and Taxi Driver , to deliver yet another hard hitting movie that is a masterpiece at every level. The movie itself is based on La Motta’s personal memoirs from which the movie takes it’s title.
The movie begins with Jake La Motta( Robert De Niro), practicing his lines as a stand up comic for a New York club, and then jump cuts into a flashback. We see the first fight, where La Motta takes on black boxer Jimmy Reeves( Floyd Anderson), and Reeves winning a fixed match, as pandemonium breaks out. Jake’s closest friend is his brother cum manager Joey( Joe Pesci) . The movie then covers his disturbed relationship with his first wife Irma( Lori Anne Flax) and then his infatuation for the teenage neighborhood blonde Vickie( Cathy Moriarty). Jake divorces Irma, and ends up marrying Vickie. The movie keeps alternating between Jake’s fights and his personal life with Vickie, and everything seems fine. He has got a girl, a nice house, enough money and his own brother as a confidant.
The fly in the ointment here is Jake himself. Insecure and neurotic, he can never believe that some one as beautiful as Cathy could ever be faithful to him. He continuously keeps suspecting her fidelity, and he believes she is cheating on him with his brother. Watch the rest of the movie to see how Jake’s temperamental nature, his own insecurities, his hot headedness contribute to his downfall.
Like Marty’s earlier Taxi Driver, this movie is also more of the study of the human mind. Great as the boxing scenes are, it’s the way Jake is unable to confront his own demons. But with a difference here. Where Travis Bickle was a totally paranoid, delusional loser, Jake is not a loser per se. For Travis the entire society was his enemy, for Jake he is his own worst enemy. In a way, Jake resembles Shakespeare’s Othello , without the literary flourishes. Both of them men, destroyed by their own jealousy. Like Othello, Jake has everything in life, money, fame and a girl, but he chooses to destroy it, with his own hands. Othello was misguided by his friend, in the case of Jake, he himself is the culprit.
The basic fact is that inspite of his success in the boxing ring, Jake is unable to have a good opinion of himself. Growing up in an Italian Ghetto , he is totally neurotic and insecure. He cant speak normally without swearing and abusing. We see that part of Jake in his interaction with his first wife, where he keeps on shouting at her, unable to bear the loss of that fight with Reeves. He abuses every one, his wife, his brother, his neighbours. The scene where Jake confronts Vickie, and she shouts back at him, and then he beats her up, is horrifying. So also the scene where Jake batters a young boxer Janiro’s face, because his wife finds it quite pretty.
Jake is torn between his love for boxing and his young pretty wife. There is a fantastic scene, where in a mood to make love to his wife, he suddenly withdraws, when he realizes that defeating his long time rival Sugar Ray Robinson , is much more important. In fact Jake himself is not sure, whether it’s love or just plain infatuation. But his obsession costs his career, as he loses interest becomes overweight, and a total slob.
The boxing scenes are some of the best ones you have ever seen on screen. The movie has a total of 8 boxing scenes, and Marty brings them alive with a degree of realism, that just shocks you. Filmed in a grainy documentary style, with B/W footage, what you see here is boxing at it’s ugliest. Sweat and blood is splayed around, animalistic sounds dominate, and close ups of the battered faces are shown. Add it to the dizzying cinematography with 360 degree angles and titled shots, and it does make you feel watching a real boxing match.
Even the titles are shown in a different manner, white superimposed on a grainy black and white screen, with De Niro doing shadow boxing. And whats outstanding is the use of jump cuts in the movie. Take the opening scene, Jake practices his lines, and ends it with saying “That’s entertainment” , and suddenly we jump to next scene with Jake getting battered in the ring. The shift takes time to register, and then we realize we are being led on a totally different track here. Also his clumsy attempts to date Vickie make a good scene.
Most of the movie is shot in B&W, except for certain bits of Jake’s home videos, which are in color. You have a series of montages which keep alternating between the fights in the boxing ring, and Jake spending time with Vickie. One of Marty’s best works for sure, along with Taxi Driver and Goodfellas.
Robert De Niro won the Best Actor award for this movie, and it would be an understatement to say he deserved it. Going from a lean and mean fighting machine to a neurotic, jealous husband to an overweight slob and a loser, is not an easy task, and De Niro manages the transformation effectively. It is tough after some time to see De Niro in the movie, you only see Jake La Motta. And the scenes where he brings out his repressed rage on his wife and brother, just chill you. You are thankful that you are not at the receiving end.
Giving De Niro good support is another Marty favorite, Joe Pesci, as Jake’s faithful brother who becomes the target of his brother’s pig headedness and stupidity. Sensible, clear headed Joey is a counterpoint to his brother, and Joe Pesci, is just brilliant. Especially in the scenes where he gets into arguments with his brother.
Cathy Moriarty , is attractive and does a good job, as Jake’s abused wife. Especially in the scene, where fed up of his constant abuse, she mocks him saying that what he was thinking was absolutely true.
Not every one’s cup of tea, because of the violence and the language used, neverthless a must watch for any movie lover, just to see the downfall of a man.