FROM THE MGM STABLE
CAST : ROBERT DE NIRO, CATHY MORIARTY, JOE PESCI.
DIRECTION : MARTIN SCORSESE.
This is my original writing on this all time great , no holds barred cinematic treasure trove of realism that is RAGING BULL, based on the life of boxer Jake La Motta. Additionally, it holds a renewed vigour in a year where the marshaling of evergreen talents by director Martin Scorsese and actors Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci has once again produced the instant classic THE IRISHMAN.
# this was originally written on 17th and 20th January, 2015.
Martin Scorsese’s genre defying gut punch paints him as a true blue auteur in bold strokes (an auteur refers to a creator with a distinct narrative style of her/ his own comparable to that of an author)
His Oscar winning masterpiece RAGING BULL (1980) is such a blistering, no holds barred beast of a film, its depiction of real life heavyweight boxer Jake La Motta’s personal history is a titanic testament to the torrid unraveling of a man, universalising the whole of humanity. Its first betokened achievement is in the field of upending chronological morales of a ‘by the numbers’ biography. Raging Bull takes a straight curve as it charts the Bronx Bull’s rise and debilitating fall through two decades of ceaseless degeneration. But the complexity is as layered as our everyday progress through annals of time and age .
Its real tour de force is that Scorsese’s virulent sense of filmmaking methods heed to La Motta’s madness of being. He is assisted ably by two principal crew members whose decorated skills go inside the very entrails of humanity’s essential pitfalls. That would first and foremost be cinematographer Michael Chapman’s arid, pulpy and stark sepia- toned credentials that perfectly temper its period authenticity. The dark horse is lifetime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker and her flight as an editing wunderkind sparks the screen. (her other credits in a long illustrious line include Indian auteur Anurag Kashyap’s international version of BOMBAY VELVET (2015) and the very recent triumph of THE IRISHMAN) Her chops register every jab and bludgeoning blow inside the ring as a life line and subsequent curse for La Motta’s takes no prisoners masculinity. This dual partnership of photography and editing slowly shapes up into a holy trinity with another auteur’s Midas touch. He happens to be the movie’s lead actor.
Under Robert De Niro’s hulking portrayal of La Motta, we get the guts, glory and emotionally sterile gravitas of the film’s subject. It’s inimitable screen alchemy that changed the face of ‘performance- art’ altogether, reconciling audiences with method acting’s finest hours. Pounding in extra kilos to physically transform himself, his delineation is in a league of its own.
Viewing RAGING BULL in close approximation also made me realize the reason for divisive reception meted out towards its creative style in its heyday /original release. It has the look and feel of a docu-drama and vulgar verbal indignities are too in your face. That way, the core of realism is maintained regarding its socio – economic ethos and hence the screenplay further subverts every sugar-coated notion of cinema on its head. Rather than being an epical idolisation, it’s a brutally intimate ‘fall from the cliff’ progression on the part of an oftentimes sadist, sexist individual. He’s not Rocky or Cinderella Man, pristine boxing underdogs of popular culture struggling to make ends meet. That’s because La Motta possesses the sweat, blood and fury to achieve career crests but he’s also paralyzed with insecurities of his own and on a personal front has too many dragons to slay, namely gluttony, lust, envy and jealousy.
De Niro is a hoot in the expertly crafted boxing sequences. He goes from being a vulnerable cad one moment to a bawling baby like figure reduced to a puddle of tears in the face of adversity. However, his evils are shown to tail him the moment he takes off his gloves and steps out of the ring. Within that sphere, he is a liability to his closest companions. He whiplashes the secure bonds centered around his genuinely emphatic brother Joey ( an always scene stealing Joe Pesci, up for another Oscar for THE IRISHMAN) and long – suffering rock of a wife Vickie ( a breakout turn by Cathy Moriarty, who snagged an Oscar nomination for it)
From there on, it’s a downward spiral for the protagonist as he feels the heat of his humble, uncouth ghetto background, his lack of discretion and ultimately failure to make amends to his kindred. The movie’s silent frames, hence, conceal a bubbling whirlpool of raw, tense emotional stakes. The montage that musically spotlights the exposition of La Motta’s personal and professional triumphs in the 1940s particularly stands out. But Scorsese, eternally a virtuoso, goes on to mine gold in the now famous ‘steak scene’ revolving around La Motta and his first wife, those brief moments where he courts a teenage Vickie with stars in his eyes; or when he stormingly manhandles both Joey and Vickie as a cover up for his own moral failings and especially towards the closing minutes.
Marlon Brando’s breath – taking On The Waterfront monologue, mouthed by De Niro and his shadowboxing self, haunt us as we look at an essentially good man brought undone by his excesses and indiscretions. In those striking flashes of rare honesty and brilliance, La Motta dons the garb of a tragic showman.
RAGING BULL has a lived- in feel of a lifestyle of weaknesses and strengths that sculpts our collective identities. Its thorough analysis of human nature and especially skewered ideals of masculine bravado is a revelation without the onus of inspiration. Art truly imitates life here in all its tragic, dramatic tones.