#39 – Raging Bull
I see strong parallels between Jake LaMotta’s story of sin, forgiveness, and transcendence and the Martin Scorsese finally emerging from his late-1970s drug abuse hell. Robert De Niro has commented that he was originally attracted to the material because he wanted to perform a stage version of Raging Bull on Broadway at night and shoot the film version during the day with Scorsese directing both. De Niro felt that such intense work was what Scorsese needed to rouse him from his self-imposed stupor.
The language alone was mind-blowing to the then 18-year-old Pope. If I remember correctly, Raging Bull featured the F-word more times (128) than any motion picture released before it. (Oh, 1980 was a more innocent time!) According to one source, that “record” has since been eclipsed by more than fifty other films, four of which are subsequent Scorsese films: The Departed (237), Goodfellas (246), Casino (422), and current narrative film F-word record holder The Wolf of Wall Street (569). Seeing Raging Bull in the summer of 1980, I had never heard the “king of swearwords” that many times in a movie. My friends and I drove home from the theater almost giddy with it, peppering our conversation with “fuck” as a noun, verb, adjective, and interjection. We even used it incorrectly as a preposition!
As a boxer, Jake’s key talent is being able to withstand more punishment than his opponents; better at taking a punch than defending himself, he wins by eventually exhausting his opponents in the ring. Jake faces Sugar Ray Robinson in two famous bouts and eventually earns a shot at the title. His fortunes turn, as fortunes will, and he eventually alienates both his brother and his wife, who divorces him. His boxing days over, Jake puts on weight, drinks to excess, and ends up in prison; after his release, he struggles to redeem himself. At the end of the film, we see him backstage at “An Evening With Jake La Motta” rehearsing Marlon Brando’s famous “I coulda been a contender” monologue from On The Waterfront.
After all, we’re not so bad. We love Scorsese movies.
Much has been made of Raging Bull’s evocative black-and-white cinematography. At the time, Scorsese was mourning the loss of thousands of color film prints—it had been discovered that Eastman Kodak had manufactured faulty safety stock during the 1960s and ’70s. (The print of The Birds that we routinely screened in my college film classes was a victim of this tragedy, and I remember being blown away when I finally saw the film’s real colors in a restored print that ran on TCM.) Scorsese wanted to film Raging Bull in black-and-white partially to protest the Kodak revelation, but also to solve a problem of perception: Scorsese would be recreating prizefights from the 1950s, and moviegoers’ only memories of prizefights from that era (era) were of black-and-white telecasts and newsreels.
Raging Bull’s Three Miracles: the colorful, intense, method acting of De Niro, Pesci, and Moriarty; Michael Chapman’s beautiful and evocative cinematography; and the making of the film itself, which sees Scorsese end his two-year addiction/career slump and use the restorative power of art to exorcise some personal demons. It is not for nothing that the film ends with the following Bible verse (John IX, 24–26):
So, for the second time, [the Pharisees]
summoned the man who had been blind and said:
"Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner."
"Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,"
the man replied.
"All I know is this:
Once I was blind and now I can see."
In nomine Patrice, et Scorsese, y spiritu LaMotta, Amen.