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Raging Bull

One of many classic collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Raging Bull is perhaps the third or even fourth that the majority of people will think of when they hear those names. Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and even The King of Comedy all make good arguments for why each could be considered the definitive Scorsese-De Niro film, but Raging Bull is surely the one that gives us the most introspection.

De Niro first shared Jake La Motta’s autobiography, the book that Raging Bull is based on, with Scorsese when the director was working on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Scorsese, not being much of a sports fan, wasn’t interested in adapting it until a few years later, when he was struggling with the emotional fallout from New York, New York being a critical and commercial flop. That’s where the heart of the film is.

La Motta isn’t a likeable character by any standards. He’s abusive and violent towards women. He’s jealous to the point of paranoia, even towards those far less fortunate than himself. Everything in his life is resting on the fruit of his obsession - the idea that one day, he might be a World Champion. Even that’s not enough though, as his size means he’ll never be the Heavyweight World Champion.

It’s almost similar to Steven Speilberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind - we see a man who’s so obsessed with this one thing that he destroys his life because of it. Both films are a window into the mind of a filmmaker who’s been able to reach the pedestal they have because of how much the pursuit of it has consumed them.

It’s also an ode to an era. Filmed in black and white to mimic the visuals of Jake La Motta’s televised fights from the 40s and 50s, it sets itself apart from the usual biopic by presenting a far gritter picture. There are also some conventions of the silent film era of Hollywood that have crept their way into this. The story is told, partly, by a series of visual cues that aren’t seen as readily in talkies, and the fights themselves almost act as live-action chapter cards between different points in La Motta’s life.

In what is, perhaps, the greatest boxing scene ever filmed, La Motta takes on Sugar Ray Robinson after a series of fights between the two have them tied fairly evenly. Scorsese had actually reviewed storyboards from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in preparation for shooting, wanting the scene to come across as if it had just been plucked out of a horror film. In a way, that’s the tone that most of the film has.

Although it’s a sports movie on the surface, Raging Bull is actually more of a chronicle of a filmmaker’s despair at his own obsession. It’s a rough experience to watch, and it’s even more difficult to consider just what kind of state Scorsese had to have been in mentally to be able to make it. The lasting thought that it leaves us with is “Was it all worth it?”, and ultimately it’s up to each of us to decide.

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