Raging Bull reminded me that sometimes, for a great film, you don’t need a great story. You just need great performances, a convincing setting and a story that works well enough maintain interest. This is, after all, a biopic, about one-time middleweight boxing champion of the world Jake La Motta and his self-destructive personal life. Between brutal and extremely powerful recreations of boxing matches are scenes of La Motta and sometimes worrying about his boxing career with manager, his brother Joey, but mostly letting his Othello-esque jealousy take control of him and making him abusive not only to her but to everyone close to him. It’s here that we see why Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are so highly-esteemed as actors; in mostly improvised scenes, they are totally believable and while La Motta’s behaviour is totally reprehensible, his behaviour is totally recognisable for that sort of hyper-masculine person, and even if you can’t possibly agree with him, you at least understand why he is acting as he does. Much has been made of De Niro’s weight gain for the last parts of the movie, and it’s remarkable how his efforts make it that much easier to believe that this is the same man in a very different chapter of his life, washed up and yet still trying to rely on the charm he once had.
Martin Scorsese shoots the film in gritty black-and-white, which often feels somewhat gimmicky, especially in films set in the era of black-and-white television, but here you can understand the decision if only for the boxing matches. Much like black-and-white photography, in black-and-white filmmaking the eye is drawn to details, the stark contrasts of black eyes, hair, blood and the white of Caucasian skin, lights, boxing rings. Ironically, by removing film a step from reality, it draws attention to the visceral things that make us register them in a more immediate way. Or perhaps I’m just trying to rationalise what is a very subconscious reaction.
A powerful film. Not one I would say needed to be watched again and again, nor one I would say would captivate everyone’s attention, but one that, like all the best biopics, shows you a human being you understand and sympathise with, no matter how disgusting.