A Film Writer’s Education is a feature where our editor Sophie gets her act together, and watches all of those classic films that she should have seen by now, but hasn’t. She has neglected the icons for too long, and is going back through some of the biggest and best moments in cinema to get her knowledge up to scratch. To start with, we’re going through Empire’s most recent list of the 100 greatest movies, released in 2017, around 60 of which Sophie hasn’t seen. She’s doing the work so you don’t have to.
Next up is Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull. She’ll share her thoughts on the film, whether she thinks it deserves it’s much loved status – and warning! Spoilers galore. Enjoy.
There’s what feels like a whole subgenre of film involving Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro‘s partnership that I’ve just never felt attracted to.
Boxing movies, too, have gone over my head. Why so many films about this one sport?!
Raging Bull felt like a good place to start to get to grips with what I’ve missed. Released in 1980, it’s directed by Scorcese and stars DeNiro as Jake La Motta, a tempestuous boxer determined to reach the top. He’s managed by his brother Joey (played by Joe Pesci), and falls for a girl called Vickie (Catherine Moriarty) who goes on to be his wife.
The film charts the progression of his life through the ups and downs of his boxing career, as well as how his relationships with those around him develop, and is based on the story of the real life boxer.
The title ‘Raging Bull’ feels accurate – there’s the sense of La Motta being primal, animalistic that runs throughout the film. He’s constantly like a loaded gun just waiting to blow, a bull ready to charge at any glimpse of red – he’s always on edge, and so are you as the audience. The tension around Jake’s temper is palpable, and whilst his fiery nature might be partly why he’s such a talented boxer, it also ultimately becomes his undoing.
There’s interesting filmmaking here; the majority of the film is beautifully shot in black and white, giving an especially old time feel, and the use of light and shadow to emphasise this is really striking and beautiful at times.
During one of Jake’s iconic fights with Sugar Ray Robinson, there’s a glorious sweeping, slo-mo shot that seems to emulate La Motta swinging his head up to face his opponent, and it’s extremely striking. Another standout scene is when Jake is thrown into a cell later in life and we see perhaps his most vulnerable moment of all, held in one shot, a chink of light coming in to the otherwise black square room.
Classical music is often juxtaposed against the fight scenes, making the violence feel more like poetry, a dance routine, and the opening credits use this to especially memorable effect.
Scorcese also frames his actors masterfully, with wonderful use of close up portrait shots – particularly in the earlier scenes.
As much as Raging Bull is clearly a masterpiece directorially, the development of the characters and nature of the protagonist made this a really jarring film for me.
Jake begins his relationship with Vicki in, to modern eyes, a very predatory way. She’s supposed to only be 15 when they meet (though Moriarty is clearly much older), and I just can’t understand the choice to make her so young on screen even if it was that way in real life. It might not have felt so on release, but in light of how the world is opening it’s eyes to sexual crimes in Hollywood and beyond, watching Jake and Vickie get closer sexually was uncomfortable to watch with her age in mind.
The vile treatment of women continues throughout the film – Jake is monstrously possessive of Vickie, jealous at any contact she has with another man, and it’s his paranoia (or not) concerning her that is a driver for his character development. The way he slaps her about is really hard to watch, and there’s a persistent misogyny towards female characters from all angles.
I know we have to tell stories about uncomfortable things sometimes, and that the film is actually based on real life people, but it was challenging for me to comprehend how Raging Bull can be so revered and yet so problematic in it’s depiction of marriage, domestic violence and its female characters.
Jake (and Joey, for that matter) are so unlikable, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, that’s it hard to find someone to latch on to as the viewer, someone to take you along with the story that you can empathise with.
DeNiro’s outstanding performance is unquestionable (though his aging prosthetics in the latter stages of the film certainly are), and it does leave you unexpectedly pitying him in the end.
Would I watch it again? Not by choice, and Raging Bull won’t be making my top 10 movies any time soon. A class act in direction, but a film whose morals leave a lot to be desired.
If you do want to give Raging Bull a chance, it is streaming on Now TV at time of publishing, or you can buy the DVD here.