AFI Top 100 Discussion: Raging Bull

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Here is the second in a series of reviews featuring dialogues about films in AFI’s Top 100. They’re in a random order, so today myself and Melissa Hunter of The Soul of the Plot will be looking at number twenty-four on the list: Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Here is the story of Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) a prized boxer who obliterates his opponents in the ring. Despite his talent, his life is troubled by problems of jealousy, paranoia, and rage outside the ring with his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and brother/manager Joey (Joe Pesci).

Jon: Raging Bull appears to be a film about boxing but that takes the back seat in this character study of Jake La Motta. There is a good amount of violence inside the ring, but what shocks me the most is the violence outside the ring. For example sequence when Jake La Motta goes to his brothers house due to his suspicion surrounding his wife, and gives Joey the beating of a lifetime; that was hard to watch. What do you make of the violence in this film?

Hunter: The film is, and most of Scorsese’s are for that matter, often recognized for the incredible amount of violence that is portrayed. The whole film is very brutal, both emotionally and physically. For me, the fights in the ring are more devastating in a physical sense because of the intense editing, camera angles and movements, as well as the sound effects. However, it is a boxing ring, and when you see Jake’s boxing matches come up on the screen, you know he’s going to be fighting. Outside of the ring though, there’s this incredible amount of tension because Jake is like a ticking bomb and you don’t know when or if he is going to off. In the scene where he asks Joey if he’s sleeping with Vickie, Jake is still for a long time and the exact moment of his attack comes as a surprise. This is true whenever Jake is confronted with something; you just don’t know how he’s going to take it or how bad the violence is going to get. The violence in the ring is more visceral because of how Scorsese shoots it, but the violence outside of the ring is more emotionally draining because it’s more motivated by the characters, and it’s more unexpected.

As you mentioned, the film is in large part a character study of the “raging bull” of the title, Jake La Motta. De Niro won an academy award for his performance here, and his performance is one of the most recognized aspects of this film. Much is made out of his physical dedication to the role, actually training and participating in some boxing matches, then gaining ridiculous amounts of weight to portray La Motta in his retirement. Seeing De Niro looking so different is one of the scariest parts of this movie for me, but the shock is definitely backed up by his acting skills. What do you think of De Niro’s performance, extra weight and all?

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Jon: As you stated above, Jake was like a ticking time bomb, which requires De Niro to give an explosive performance. I was definitely impressed by his portrayal of La Motta to the point where I became unnerved. De Niro’s sheer dedication to go through with method acting is scary enough but how he truly becomes this complex character that has all these problems going on is incredible. I was shocked to see De Niro putting on 60 pounds, however what really caught my attention about that was he did this for all for a film. He put his on life on the line to give a correct depiction of his character. I read that Scorsese was startled by the weight gain when he saw De Niro was having difficulties breathing during production and feared for his health. I’m not sure how accurate that is but that ties into De Niro’s dedication, and sublime acting. He won the Academy Award deservedly.

I am new to Scorsese films but so far this is easily the most visually entertaining film. The way it’s shot and edited is masterful. Besides the subject content, what also separates this film from Rocky is that it’s shot on black and white film. Scorsese was aware of numerous difficulties regarding the use of color for this film and it was released in 1980 a time where black and white films were limited. I know we both enjoy b&w films, but do you think this decision benefited this particular film?

Hunter: I do love black and white films, but color can be used wonderfully as well. For this story, I think black and white was the right call. Not only does it help place us in the time period of the forties (where a far greater number of films were shot in black and white), but it also clues us into the darker, grittier tone of the film. The film makes such good use of black and white with both the high contrast scenes and the smokier, flatter ones that it’s honestly hard to picture it in color. Of course, that discounts the short color portion in the middle which is wonderfully placed to give a sense of normalcy in the midst of all the violence and brutality of the rest of the film.

I agree with you that this is probably Scorsese’s most visually entertaining film, and from this great director, one of my personal favorites, that’s saying a lot. On this last rewatch, Raging Bull solidified itself as my favorite Scorsese film. It held up a lot better for me on the second viewing than Taxi Driver did. I think it’s his best film, and a perfect combination of film technique and thematic depth. It’s very powerful emotionally and also stimulating intellectually. La Motta is a very typical Scorsese character, which is able to show with incredible humanity even along with his depravity, which is one of Scorsese’s greatest strengths as a director in my opinion. I only have a few of Scorsese’s feature films left to go (6 on last count), so I can almost definitively say that it is his best. With your limited exposure to Scorsese’s films, how do you think this stacks up among his others?

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Jon: In regards to the black and white, I agree with you 100%. I have seen Taxi Driver, Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, Shutter Island, and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think Raging Bull is a great film, and probably the best of that list. Scorsese & De Niro put a lot of passion into this film and I highly respect that. The problem with Raging Bull for me is that I can’t find much enjoyment from it. I liked that it was straightforward in terms story, but It’s just way too depressing of a film to want to watch over and over in comparison to Scorsese’s other films. As mentioned before this is easily the best in terms of visual entertainment, but falls below everything but Shutter Island in terms of enjoyment.

Much as been said about Robert De Niro’s Oscar winning performance, but how do you feel about the supporting performances? Joe Pesci gives a great performance, but I was impressed with Cathy Moriarty. She portrays a 15 year old involved with short tempered boxer, while Moriarty herself was only 19. It takes a lot of talent to be able to emulate those emotions of a tired and abused wife over the years. What do you make of her role in the film as La Motta’s wife?

Hunter: I’m really glad you brought up Moriarty because she leads into my next question! But before I ask that I’ll answer yours. Pesci and Moriarty both have a challenging job, playing opposite one of the greatest actors of all time: Robert De Niro. Joey’s character offers a good counterpoint to Jake, when he’s with Jake he seems like the voice of reason, but when he’s not he sort of acts as Jake would, were he in that situation. Specifically I’m talking about the scenes where Jake tells Joey to hit him in the beginning and when Jake accuses Joey of cheating with his wife, Joey seems more reasonable than Jake in those, like he’s the only one who has any chance of convincing Jake of anything. However, when he sees Vickie at the Copacabana without Jake, he acts just as Jake would in that situation. It’s very interesting as this was the first time (I believe, at least in a Scorsese movie for sure) that the two were on screen together. It’s interesting to contrast their relationship here, as well as with De Niro’s wives, with their relationships in other films, especially Casino (which you should check out by the way).

Moriarty is a crucial part of the film. She has to stand up to De Niro both as an actress and as a character. I love how impassive she is in this film. De Niro can sort of project his character’s thoughts  onto her and the audience doesn’t necessarily know what she’s actually thinking. Like most women in Scorsese’s films, she has to take a lot of abuse but remains pretty strong throughout the entire film. [minor spoiler alert] Though she doesn’t leave him until the end of the film, she is determined not to let Jake get to her. Her character is incredibly fascinating, and even more fascinating is the strange jealous/protectiveness that Jake views her with. Scorsese generally shoots her in slow motion, showing that she is somehow outside of reality, time slows down around her while everything else is in normal speed: reality. There’s a lot to say on the feminist aspects of this film; I was wondering if you picked up on that at all?

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Jon: The recurring theme for women in Scorsese films appear to carry out on the same date. They are idolized by the men when they first encounter each other, but all head on the same path of divorce. At least it’s like that in Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. The use of slow motion was exquisitely executed when Jake first noticed her at the pool. She looked as if she was a goddess who decided to come down and move her feet gracefully through the water. The women in this film were presented as housewives, there to take care of the baby and the needs of the husband. That is not the most fun life when you have the sort of husband Jake can be, so maybe that can be an explanation as to why Jake is so paranoid that she’s going to mess around. Joey doesn’t seem to view women higher than that either, so perhaps he understands Jake’s viewpoint. Thus leading to his bust up at the Copacabana. However I loved that Moriarty was able to stand up for herself through the film.

That wraps up our second AFI Top 100 discussion! Hunter likes the film more than me, however we both agree that it is a sensational piece of art from Scorsese. The film is fully equipped with stunning visuals, emotions, and acting by De Niro, Pesci, and Moriarty. Raging Bull has been considered by many to be Scorsese’s masterpiece, and a true American achievement. Stay tuned for our next AFI Top 100 review of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, which will be coming sometime soon on Hunter’s blog, The Soul of the Plot.

My Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

Hunter’s Rating: 98%

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“You didn’t get me down, Ray.”

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” Review 

FMR “Movies That Everyone Should See” review

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