I understand why this film is regarded as a classic. In fact, from the very beginning, the film has a kind of unique feeling, it's almost shouting, and loudly, "This is not 'Rocky'": from the classic opening score, to the shadowy black and white cinematography, the director is the first real star of the film : Martin Scorsese, the heavy-weight champion of film-making, probably the most talented director of his generation. The use of Black & White prevented the film from an overdose of red but the pay-off, was its "classic" look. When De Niro was reciting Brando's lines you could almost feel you were watching "On the Waterfront".
But I must admit I had mixed feelings with "Raging Bull" at first. On one side, I was literally mesmerized by De Niro's brutally powerful performance as a man devoured by jealousy. In fact, this jealousy, driven by a probably very low self-esteem works almost like a gangrene. Following the development of his character, you know that sooner or later, the guy's gonna reach a breaking point and the effects will be devastating. On the other side, this jealousy created a bit of redundancy in the movie, "let's face it" (like Terry Malloy would say), the scenes, although beautifully directed, making Vickie La Motta floating from man to man (great job by Marty, jealousy had never been so perfectly captured in film), those scenes were kind of repetitive, and upsetting. Upsetting in a good way because we're not necessarily supposed to root for La Motta but at least react to his shocking behavior and aggressive attitude. And upsetting in a bad way, because I was wondering all through the movie, "Okay, we got it, the guy is jealous" until the movie reminded of "A Women Under the Influence", another masterpiece where a character's behavior, makes you feel so uncomfortable, you don't want to watch.
And that"s how "Raging Bull" is a very particular movie. I hope every fan of this film can at least concede that it takes more than one or two viewings to let the film grow on you. And it's not that easy to consider it one of 'the best ever' after one viewing. "Raging Bull" is interesting because it's one of the few character studies that make you question the main roots of the character's behavior, the motives. Travis Bickle was alienated and frustrated, Charlie was torn between friendship and quest for redemption. In La Motta's case, it's hard to come to a conclusion. We know how he is, but why? why such a paranoid behavior that ultimately lead him to lose his family. Paranoia can be explained, take a character like Michael Corleone for instead, but for La Motta, it seemed irrational.
Then I realized the answer was in one, often overlooked, key scene, the Janiro fight. I will blaspheme by comparing the movie to a more recent one, but it reminded me of the scene in "Fight Club" when the narrator destroyed Angel Face -'something beautiful'. The violence La Motta injected in that fight made it look like a personal vengeance, massacring, 'executing' Janiro's face as a message to his wife, "you thought he was pretty, now he ain't pretty no more". Ruthless, but powerful, because it shows how low is his self-esteem. Destruction is the weapon of the envious, he doesn't try to improve himself but to destroy the challenger and stay the one and only one.
Low self-esteem doesn't mean lack of an ego, but La Motta's one is so twisted, so hard to grab, to understand, we try at least to find it sympathetic, and it only works because the character is pathetic, victim of himself. And this characteristic finally redeems him in the iconic jail scene, where the pathos reaches its paroxysm, when he can finally shout, break down, hit the wall with his bare fists and his head, and cry, realizing how hard he failed. This is the highlight of the film, the scene that makes him profoundly human, and as a viewer, I could at least make peace with him and appreciate the character, and the film. This is the pay-off of all the frustration, anger, discomfort I felt.
Jake thought his wife was a whore, blinded by an extreme machismo tainted with paranoid jealousy. He even accused his brother, his only real friend of being a member of this conspiracy. At the end, he lost everything. How pathetic he was outside the ring contrasts with his strength and ferocity inside, he hits and takes the hits, exorcising his own demons in this arena where he's the king. "Raging Bull" is often compared with "Rocky", well, despite the difference of mood, one thing they have in common, is how the ring appears to be an allegory for desire of revenge. In "Raging Bull", some shots are so aesthetically exaggerated that it's like it was intended to be kept proportional to all the griefs, all the feelings of low self-esteem that were burning in Jake's mind. In the ring, these feelings explode like a geyser of blood. Even when the Bull finds his "toreador", he's ugly and destroyed, but he's still standing, he's still "the boss".
I used to be very critical towards "Raging Bull", I never understood why this film was praised as one of the best ever, or #4 in AFI's Top 100. Now, I know it's a raw portrayal of a man we don't feel sympathy for him because we don't want to, the character is not to blame. We are, we're no better than La Motta because at least he took the hits until the "right" one hit him in the face. It took me time to realize that "Raging Bull" was indeed a masterpiece. Don't blame me. I guess all I can say is that "once I was blind and now I can see."
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