In 1976, a little film named Rocky was released into theaters. Starring (and directed by) the then-unknown Sylvester Stallone, it told the inspiring, heartwarming story of an inner-city worker whose courage helps him achieve his dreams of boxing superstardom. About four years later, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull came out, and it was about Jake LeMotta (Robert DeNiro, in what is arguably his greatest performance), a real-life powerhouse also in love with that particular sport. However, instead of a formulaic (albeit very well-executed) feel-good story, audiences got a bleak, abrasive downward spiral into violence and misery, topped off with about as much swearing as Goodfellas.
Which film is better? Obviously, both are so different that they really can’t be compared, but in all honesty, Raging Bull will stick with me much, much longer than Rocky. You’d think that since the actual LeMotta was involved in the film’s production (as a trainer for DeNiro), he’d want the finished product to be a smoother, more respectful portrait of him, but somehow, that wasn’t the case. Props to him for letting himself be portrayed with the brutal honesty the story needed, which most biopics these days unfortunately lack.
We first see LeMotta in 1964, as a fat, old, washed-up comedian. Practicing his routine alone in an empty backstage room, he’s nothing but the crumbled, whimpering remains of the dauntless fighter he once was. The film then cuts all the way back to 1941, where he’s 19, healthy, and at his prime in the ring, though not good enough to avoid suffering his first loss to rival boxer Jimmy Reeves. Even worse, upon heading home, he gets in a screaming match with his wife, and demands his brother (Joe Pesci, whose performance here would be his well-deserved breakthrough into the mainstream) punch him multiple times for fun.
Upon spotting a 15-year old girl named Vickie cooling off at a local swimming pool (the camera creepily focuses on her bare legs and face), he instantly falls in love with her. This glimpse of happiness finally appearing in him, coupled by his marrying of her after his current wife conveniently disappears, is so genuine, you think he’ll finally find some peace in his life. If only that could ever be the case.
In a sense, LeMotta reminded me of Uncut Gems’ Howard Ratner (completely different film, I know, but let me explain myself here): every single time they came close to achieving something great, to digging themselves out of the pits they’ve gradually sunk into, their nasty, greedy temperaments would just force them to turn in the other direction. Watching them, you can’t help but hope that someday, they’ll fix all their mistakes and turn into better people, despite the exact opposite becoming more and more obvious every minute. LeMotta eventually does make his brother forgive him for everything, but it’s no use: the former person is already too far gone.
Can we all just take a moment to say how wrong it is to put the grimy B&W cinematography of Raging Bull in color? I see it all over the Internet (including Rotten Tomatoes, of all places), and it’s irritating me more and more every minute. With the exception of a joyous color wedding montage, the entire film is shot in gritty grays and blacks to intensify the feeling of darkness and rage in LeMotta (starkly magnified by the camera’s violent zooms and flashes), and it works beautifully. Not only does this colorization make the film look significantly less interesting, but also completely misses the point of avoiding that in the first place.
So with everything considered, is Raging Bull Scorsese’s masterpiece? It may very well be. I know I haven’t seen every single Scorsese movie yet, but films as great as this one can only come along once in a lifetime. I am certain of it.