RogerBW's Blog

Raging Bull 24 September 2021

1980 drama, dir. Martin Scorsese, Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci; IMDb / allmovie. The boxer is on the way up, then he's on the way down.

Audiences hated it. Critics mostly loved it. I'm afraid I'm with the audiences; but perhaps in part because of this film, our vocabulary now includes "toxic masculinity", so these days we don't need it laid out and dissected over two hours and change. First I hated these people and this story; then I stopped feeling anything at all for them, and tried to appreciate the film as a film.

My working theory, though, is that just as the book is LaMotta's autobiography, the film is meant to be LaMotta's memories. That's why it's so piecemeal, just the things that (many years later) he finds distinctive: he has no childhood, but comes into existence already a competent fighter. His first wife vanishes from the story after her one scene, to make room for the new prettier girlfriend/wife. His ban for throwing a fight passes quickly, and so does his prison sentence. Similarly, while in the early fights it's pretty clear what's going on, later on it's all much more confused, and one's not at all sure that he ever realises that introducing underage girls to rich men was actually a bad thing to do.

If I were a boxing fan, I think I'd be frustrated. Yeah, LaMotta's style was less technical and subtle and more about getting in close, not worrying about defence, and simply handing out damage; but one never really sees his opponents' styles or gets any sense of distinction between them. (Now I find myself wanting to watch Hajime no Ippo again.)

One feels that Jake never really understands what's going on around him. Sometimes things are going his way, and he's generous to his friends; sometimes his desires are frustrated, and then he lashes out. "I'm a bum without you and the kids", he says when his wife finally leaves him, but he was always a bum; it's just that once upon a time he had people who'd run interference for him, before he drove them all away.

It's meant to be a rise and fall, but it's just the same story as practically any boxer who's any good: you win for a bit, then you start losing, and eventually you decide to retire and find that you don't know how to do anything else. (Where does Jake get this sudden taste and talent for comedy? It's not foreshadowed at all.) He's an Italian-descended everyman, but as portrayed has so little personality that one can't even call this a cautionary tale; he just reacts to what's in front of him.

I would like to call out the final scene with Pesci, which many reviewers seem to regard as evidence of Jake's "redemption"; I've been that guy, confronted by someone who used to be a friend but is now a sentimental drunken embarrassment, and you say all sorts of friendly things because you just want to get away. Joey is not going to call Jake tomorrow.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

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