One classic I hadn’t seen until recently was Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Despite my dislike of the sport in real-life, I’m not adverse to the sport in films and have loved many a good boxing movie. I approached the film in an excited fashion, but still filled with the unease that comes with watching classics for the first time.
Raging Bull tells the real-life story of Jake La Motta, an angry Italian-American boxer who has immense skill in the ring but absolutely no skill outside of it. The film is a study of his adult life, following him from 1941 all the way to 1964. It is a lot to cover, but anchored by De Niro’s superb performance the film flows effortless and is focused purely on La Motta, not on his career.
La Motta isn’t a nice guy; he beats his wife, his brother and himself. He is constantly angry and blames all of his problems on everybody but himself. He is hard to relate to and because of that it is hard to get into the film’s rhythm. De Niro’s performance is one of his best; he portrays La Motta perfectly and captures everything true about the man. But why do we care about La Motta? We don’t and that makes finding the stories moral hard.
On the surface the film can be viewed as “do good things and good things will follow”, La Motta is an asshole to everybody in his life and they all leave him. The final scene has La Motta still blaming everybody for his issues, instead of taking responsibility. As an overarching message it kind of works, but it is a lot of hard work to sit through for a moral that doesn’t stand at.
Instead the film is best viewed as a personal semi-expose. In the late 70s Martin Scorsese became a cocaine addict, he was extremely depressed and he spiraled down until almost dying from a drug overdose. Despite Scorsese’s disinterest in making a boxing film, Robert De Niro pushed for him to make Raging Bull. Scorsese discovered something personal within the film, saying he could easily relate to La Motta’s story. And, with a happier ending for Scorsese, the rest is history.
Raging Bull is Scorsese’s best work as a director and his most personal. It saved him and he poured his heart and soul into it. You can tell this from the get go just how important this film became for Scorsese. Whilst the story and character aren’t easy to relate to, it is easy to appreciate Scorsese’s position and marvel at how he pulled himself out. Whilst I may not adore the film, I adore the story behind the film and I’m thankful that it saved the life of one the great directors.