Archive for the ‘Robert DeNiro’ Category


“Raging Bull,” dir. Martin Scorsese

November 6, 2010

Just over a year ago, someone asked me what was the most violent film I had ever seen. The question came up while we were watching David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, right after a bank robber separated his head from his own body with a shotgun blast.

The first film that came to mind was actually Raging Bull, Scorsese’s portrait of middleweight champion Jake LaMotta. Violence runs through the entire picture, even when its central character is far from the ring, and often times it feels real, uncomfortable and almost too close to home.

Widely celebrated today, no one wanted to make the film except Robert DeNiro. LaMotta was a role he wanted to play, but Scorsese couldn’t relate to the material and turned down DeNiro’s offer to direct. Years later, when his personal life unraveled, Scorsese finally connected: he saw himself in LaMotta, and when DeNiro approached him again, he agreed to do the picture to save his own life.

It’s not unusual for Scorsese to claim his next film to be his last, but with Raging Bull, he certainly made it as if it was his last will and testament. Uncompromising and intensely personal, he virtually exhausted everything he had to say with that one film. He later described his approach as “kamikaze” filmmaking.

The film would eventually earn eight Oscar nominations (winning two), but despite this recognition, it wasn’t a commercial success. Reviews were also mixed with Pauline Kael dismissing DeNiro’s portrayal of Jake LaMotta as “a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of character inside.” Obviously, I don’t agree with Kael, but I think I understand her perceptions – it probably has a lot to do with the character itself: a boxer consumed by his emotions but who can only articulate them through violence instead of words. Scorsese conveys this brilliantly in the fight scenes, which are a visceral tour de force of sound and cinematography.

The ring delivers more than LaMotta’s catharsis: when the violence bleeds into the crowd, it’s one of the few times LaMotta ever connects with those around him. The effect of these scenes is often brutal, but occasionally beautiful (as in that gorgeous opening shot, which nearly made a convert out of one Scorsese detractor I know). It’s even more striking when we see the passion (and later paranoia) driving these scenes taking shape outside of the ring, especially in the brief, fleeting moments that drag in time.

As graphic as the boxing scenes are, the most startling moments actually deal with domestic violence, especially when LaMotta grows more possessive of his second wife. Violence pretty much defines every aspect of his life: immense pain is felt and returned in kind, impulsively and honestly. Towards the end, when he supposedly finds grace, it doesn’t feel like complete redemption, but it’s enough.

(A new 35mm print of Raging Bull is now showing at Film Forum in New York City.)