Criterion Corner: Raging Bull (#1134)

There are films that are a joy to watch because they’re so well crafted. The director knows what they’re doing, the cinematography is stunning, the editing is masterful, the acting and writing, the score – everything is spot on.

Then there are films that are deeply unpleasant because of the world and characters they depict. You don’t want to spend time in this place, with these people, and once you’ve been there for two hours, you just want to go and have a shower and clear your brain from the memory of them.

And sometimes, there’s a film that fits both of these descriptions. For me, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is one of those films.

This isn’t necessarily a negative, but it means that I need to be in the right frame of mind for such a film – though Raging Bull makes it somewhat easier than other, similar films, because the artistry of the filmmaking is just that good. From the first scene – that monochromatic, slow-motion shot of Jake LaMotta dancing in the ring, the “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana playing – it’s clear that we’re in the presence of artists who know their craft. But that’s just one side of the film, the one that finds beauty in strange, violent places. The other side, and the one that dominates much of the running time, is much more squalid and often decidedly unpleasant, because the boxer Jake LaMotta, as played by Robert De Niro, written by Paul Schrader and directed by Scorsese, is a piece of work. He tries to compensate for his feelings of inadequacy with physical violence, not only in the ring but also at home. He mistrusts and beats his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), any random guy he considers a sexual rival – and that’s pretty much anyone who dares to talk to Vickie when he’s around, or that he suspects of talking to her when he isn’t.

A lesser film would make LaMotta more palatable by making him pitiable, or by giving us reasons for his various hangups. It’s possible that such a lesser film would be more enjoyable to watch at times, but it would be less honest. Just as in, say, Taxi Driver, Scorsese doesn’t take us by the hand and lead us to a place of pity. If the audience ends up pitying LaMotta, it’s on their own terms. If they end up thinking that the man gets everything he deserves? That’s also okay. If Scorsese does anything to keep us from despising his toxic men, it’s that he portrays them not as monsters but as human beings. Entirely irredeemable characters are rare in his films – but if there is the possibility of redemption, it is usually hard and gruelling, a process that isn’t one-and-done as in so many other films.

I’d seen Raging Bull once or twice before, always on TV. (I would both love to see it on a big screen and feel very ambivalent if the opportunity arose – though not ambivalent enough to miss it.) It was only this time around, while watching the new 4K version that Criterion released this year, that I paid closer attention to the scenes of the film that aren’t immediately recognisable as virtuoso showcases of cinematic craftsmanship. Everything that’s in the ring is evident as a masterclass of direction, cinematography and editing, combined with original, effective sound design – but at first I dismissed the scenes where Jake LaMotta and his brother Joey chew the fat and get into stupid arguments that may be as dramatically interesting as the fights, but they are less obviously so cinematically. But while these scenes may not be the same kind of obvious showcase for Scorsese’s talents and those of his collaborators, the contrast between the fights and the domesticity of LaMotta’s everyday life is essential.

In the crisp, 4K images of the new Criterion disk, there is almost a touch of hyperrealism to the scenes at home, where LaMotta has no other outlet for his violent energy than to pick fights with everyone. This time around, I found myself thinking of similar-looking scenes in the early films of Jim Jarmusch, as if we were looking at an uncannily sharp, high-contrast version of Stranger Than Paradise, with the difference that Jarmusch’s characters are amiable, shambling losers unlikely to throw punches in a jealous rage. The unvarnished, indie look and feel of these scenes means that the domestic drama is as hyperreal as the fights are expressionistic. Each aspect of LaMotta’s life becomes as tactile and three-dimensional as the other due to the quality of the visuals. At first it may seem like 4K is wasted on scenes where De Niro and Pesci sit at a table and run around in verbal circles reminiscent of David Mamet at his best, but the remaster gives all of these facets of the story and character the same importance, the same realness.

Verdict: Raging Bull will never be my favourite film by Martin Scorsese due to the unpleasantness of the main character and his world, but the sheer quality of the filmmaking on display is enjoyable enough to make up for a lot of unpleasantness. It is a clear example of the filmmaker and his collaborators at their strongest and most uncompromising, and the new Criterion version is probably the best way to see – and hear – the film outside an actual cinema.

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