I think I’m going to have to watch this film again. I feel like there was so much that passed me by. The first problem is that I haven’t watched many of Martin Scorsese’s films, so I can’t place it within his directing career. I haven’t seen many boxing films either, so I can’t really identify how Ranging Bull stands out from the crowd as a ‘masterpiece’. But then, similar issues crop up with every review I write and these limitations of my knowledge are what give my challenge its purpose. I’d best pull up my socks and get on with it then, eh?
As ever, a plot outline, minus nasty spoilers: Robert De Niro plays middleweight boxer Jake La Motta, who is far from your typical heroic sports figure. He’s an impressive fighter, but his private life is less than admirable. He’s jealous, tempestuous and self-willed, determined to make it alone. He abuses his brother and his own wife, straining their relationships to the limit.
So then, what did I notice? Well, De Niro earned his Academy Award for Best Actor. He was just so believable, which is always a good characteristic in an actor. Raw emotion is the order of the day as we see his rage in the ring, his intense distrust of his wife and brother, and, repeatedly, his overwhelming grief at the many tragedies in his life. In fact, De Niro was a significant driving force behind this film, enlisting the director, scouting new acting talent and even putting a hand in with the script. The fact that he put on 70 pounds to play the retired La Motta in the latter stages of the story demonstrates his dedication to the cause. And to top it all off, he was a damn good boxer too.
It was only after years of De Niro hassling him to take a look at La Motta’s autobiography that Martin Scorsese agreed to take on Raging Bull. It’s often stated that Scorsese used the creation of this film as a personal therapy, which would make sense given his micro-management of all the aspects of its production. This is not to undermine Scorsese’s hard work, however. Raging Bull is often cited as one of his best works of art, solidifying his position as one of the great influencers in the film industry. In my opinion, it comes down to his eye for detail and general good filmmaking judgement. For example, he insisted on the fight scenes being shot from the opponent’s perspective, not the spectators’, yielding impressive results. Throughout this film I felt a distinct trust in Scorsese’s story-telling ability, that he wouldn’t leave anything important out, just as he wouldn’t waste my time. That’s a rare sensation.
During this first viewing, I simply soaked up the feel of the thing, sussing out the devices and techniques I’m sure I’ll come to know as distinctive to Scorsese. As for all the underlying themes etc, I’ll have a crack at that next time.