The camera stalks La Motta as he in turn stalks Reeves; in a series of vicious blows he knocks Reeves down--once twice three times. On third knockout Reeves is saved by the bell; is declared the winner and the audience roars. La Motta thrusts both arms defiantly in the air; he knows he’s the real winner. Someone flings a chair in a high arc--the camera following as it sails, turning lazily--to crash on the littered canvas.
After the fight there’s a funny scene where La Motta quarrels with his first wife Irma (Lori Anne Flax), who’s overcooking his steak (he wants it bloody rare). He upends his table they yell at each other--a louder more obscene version of Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire. Later he taunts his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) into bashing his face with a towel wrapped around the fist then without a towel--the blows open up the stitched cuts spatter him with blood. “You animals!” a neighbor calls up at them; La Motta threatens to kill and eat the man's dog for lunch.
Story has it that the screenplay (by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin based on the book by Jake La Motta, Joseph Carter, Peter Savage) was partially rewritten by Scorsese and De Niro because a producer complained that La Motta was “a cockroach.” What (you want to ask) was in that original script that they had to cut out to arrive at this presumably more acceptable version?
Funny but for a film considered the greatest of the ‘80s Raging Bull has one of the most misshapen scripts I know. We never really learn what happened to La Motta's first wife--she drops out of the picture when he meets 15-year-old Vickie (the unnaturally beautiful Cathy Moriarty) who becomes spouse number two. We never really understand the machinations behind the Mafia boss' procuring for him his middleweight title, or why he’s so jealous of Vickie, or whether or not his jealousy was justified. Chunks of the film seem to be missing either because of damage to his skull from years of boxing (neat excuse), or out of deliberate omission--and if deliberate the omissions don't seem motivated by self-censorship. He doesn't hesitate to tell us the brutal things he did in anger; he does seem afraid however to tell us why he felt such anger. Showing us the brutality would only cause us to hate him, something La Motta doesn’t seem to care about at all; showing us the reason for the brutality however would allow us to understand him--something La Motta seems to care very much about indeed.
What we are given instead of the connective tissue that holds most biopics together is domestic and ringside violence, the domestic violence shot in a grim neorealist style (relieved somewhat by pungent dialogue), the ringside violence--well after all is said and done the raison d’être for the film. Pauline Kael in an unenthusiastic review notes that you don’t get a sense of the fighters’ styles--their rhythm and balance their boxing skill. They do little boxing she complains which may be what Scorsese intended: not to bring you a match but an experience, put you in the ring with combatants in giant closeup, taking the blows inflicting the punishment La Motta so relentlessly receives and dishes out.
Scorsese for all the bloodletting in his films has never made a war picture; I submit that Raging Bull is his first and to date only such project, with battles as intense and intricately planned as any military campaign. Take his sound--tomatoes crushed watermelons smashed to approximate the impact of blows on the flesh; glass was shattered to simulate the sharp fizz of detonating flashbulbs. In the background you hear tigers roar baboons shriek a whole menagerie of cries growls bellows--Scorsese noted in an interview that laying in the sound effects for the film was like doing orchestration for a symphonic score.
While the film’s sound acts on you viscerally--tremendous roundhouse blows landing on ribs and guts--the photography acts like sharp blinding jabs. Flashbulbs burst and the screen flares into total white; the camera whirls then falls to the floor sideways, approximating a boxer’s vertiginous collapse. Scorsese’s visuals are a potent brew of neorealist details (the haze the brutal lighting the handheld camera) and expressionist style (the startling overhead shots the rapid-fire editing); a sip and you’re dizzy with hyperreality with imagery larger more vivid than life.
A third of the way through the film turns into a Bronx Othello with La Motta agonizing over his wife’s (imagined?) faithlessness. Again it’s a measure of Scorsese’s expressive powers that while he never explains the jealousy he does make us experience it. We watch La Motta stare; we peer at Vickie’s enigmatic smile (slow motion, as if La Motta insisted on examining the evidence in instant replay). Scorsese never really lets you know if she’s cheating on him or not; the ambiguity is enough to drive any man crazy and La Motta unsurprisingly snaps--he accuses his brother of having an affair with Vickie, and viciously beats Joey in front of his wife and children. La Motta has fingered his Iago is chastising him accordingly.
Problem is if we can be sure of anything it’s that Joey is loyal; Joey at one point breaks the ribs of small-time Mafia lieutenant Salvy (Frank Vincent) for an imagined insult to Jake. Pesci’s unambiguous performance--violent yet virtuous, too good-natured and thickheaded to ever turn against his brother--serves to drive the point home: if anyone has betrayed Jake the film seems to suggest it’s Jake himself--he’s Othello and Iago in a single suffering figure.
Later the Bronx Bull dares Sugar Ray to pound the living shit out of him. The battering Robinson delivers is horrific--La Motta’s thighs are spattered with his own blood; his arms twist and jerk, hooked over the ropes in a bid to stay upright (you’re reminded of Christ's arms draped on the horizontal beam of his crucifix). Robinson’s glove looms like the wrath of God; when the fist descends La Motta’s nose explodes in a gout of blood.
A devastating moment, though what makes the scene unsettling isn’t the physical pain but the suggestion that La Motta wants it is asking for it. Something in La Motta has finally recoiled at his bestiality, feels he must be punished, and at a level commensurate with the seriousness of his sin.
You might say Raging Bull is all surfaces never attempts to explain its brute characters; you might also say the film respects their essential mystery probing carefully, throwing sidelong glances, never once insulting them with a pat set of explanations. Not an easy film to sit through--not that it asks to be easy, even for a moment. Repulsive and uncompromising, with a mute eloquence in what it doesn't say, in what it refuses to talk about at all.
First published in Menzone 2000