Some films are so powerfully emotional, so well directed that they immediately soar to the top of every best movie list for both fans and critics. Shortly after the release of a film like this it is certain that it will stand the test of time and forever remain a classic. There are only a few films that are able to do this and ‘Raging Bull’ is among them. This film is on four of AFI’s top movies list moving from number 24 in its 1998 list to an amazing 4 in the updated list for 2008. It also ranked at the top spot as the all time greatest sports film. Technically this movie is a sports themed film, boxing to be specific, but the sheer impact of the characters and story allows it to transcend that niche and be lauded as one of the best films ever, period. There is a depth to the story and performances here that redefines the art of cinema. The direction is nothing less than perfect. Made in 1980 for the miniscule budget of $18 million it just managed to recoup that investment with its initial domestic box office and continues to be a best seller in the home theater market. It has been noted that the extreme level of violence contained in the movie and a lackluster advertising campaign kept the film from reaching the heights but this is a movie that is art and needs to be seen no matter what the sales figures indicate. The film has been distributed on DVD on its own and as part of several packaged sets but what the fans have been demanding is now here, the ultimate presentation of this important film in high definition. Fox has been re-releasing many of their incredible catalog of films to this latest and greatest format and it is time for ‘Raging Bull’ to receive the treatment that it so richly deserves. ‘Raging Bull’ is one of those rare convergences of writing, acting and direction that comes along only a handful of times in a film buff’s life. If you have not seen this film than you have abdicated your right to call yourself a aficionado of the art of cinema. No serious collection can be considered complete without this film on your selves; it is that seminal a work.
The basis of the film’s story came from the autobiographic novel by the protagonist Jake La Motta in cooperation with two established authors; Joseph Carter and Peter Savage. The original screenplay was written by Mardik Martin but it resulted in problems with the studio. The point of view was that of a sports writer and did not sit well with either director Martin Scorsese or the star Robert De Niro. Paul Shrader was brought in to create a more personalized and intense script. He had previously worked with both Scorsese and De Niro on another great film, ‘Taxi Driver’ so it was hoped that Shrader would be able to provide a screenplay worthy of this compelling story. He succeeded far more than any expectations. Actually, the studios were concerned that the intensity and level of extreme violence would garner the film the kiss of death, the dreaded ‘X’ rating. Please note this was before the revamp of the MPAA rating system when NC-17 replaced X as the most serve rating. The story is about La Motta who was a middleweight boxer of some reputation. He has fallen on hard times and tried to become a stand up comedian, unsuccessfully. Normally a boxing flick would concentrate on the man’s rise to the top or his fall from the ranks of contenders. What makes this film so different is the way it focuses on the emotional turmoil of La Motta. He is a man plagued by many demons. There is no room for shades of gray in his mind only vastly opposed extremes. This is most notable in the way he interacts with women. They are either virginal or whores; there is no room in his perspective to treat a woman as an equal in any sense. This is played out with his relationship with Vickie Thailer (Cathy Moriarty), the woman who would become his wife. Audiences have seen love hate relationships many times before. Spousal abuse has also been depicted on the screen. These aspects of the human condition have never been presented with the stark, raw, unfettered emotion that is presented here.
Martin Scorsese has never been the sort of director who took the easy way out in any of his films. Many of his works are emotionally draining to watch so you can imagine the toll they must have taken on Scorsese and his cast and crew to create the film. He had maintained a close friendship with De Niro and made his staring in the film a prime condition of accepting the director’s chair. Scorsese has a unique style that none can touch. He is able to get into the psychological depths of his characters in a way that few can do. Unlike the character here Scorsese lives for the shades of differences in the emotional makeup those that inhabit his films. They are all shown as highly complex individuals that carry emotional scares that direct their actions. I can not think of a single film by Scorsese that has not completely enthralled me. He took a big chance with some of the fundamental choices made for this film. In 1980 only a few artsy Indy flicks were made in black and white. Scorsese wanted to capture the look and feel of the old, great boxing films that we all grew up watching and take it to the next level. For a director used to a color palette to work with Scorsese demonstrates his innate and expansive understanding of cinema by giving the audience perfection. His juxtaposition of light and shadow visually reflects the inner turmoil that besets La Motta. Since he was a man that lived in extremes black and white was the best possible way to present this story.
It has been almost thirty years since this movie was released and still it holds together has one of the greatest performances that De Niro ever provided. Considering he is one of the greatest American actors of this or any generation that is saying a lot. As a method actor De Niro endeavored to get into the mind of his character. He gained some sixty pounds ti play the corpulent La Motta as well as learning to box. This is a man that doesn’t act as much as he transforms himself into his character; he is the epitome of acting. In many ways the scenes between De Niro and Moriarty are more violence and demanding than those showing the boxing matches. While boxing De Niro shows La Matta as a man who never pulls a punch. You can feel the hard hits between one man and another that gives you the feeling that you are there. In contrast the fights between husband and wife are even more violent. Instead of glove clad fists the weapons are explosive words and but de Niro and Moriarty are expert in presenting them to the audience.
You may think that a thirty year old movie in black and white is not worth the high definition treatment. This is not true at all. I have seen this film in many formats over the years from cable to video tape and then DVD. When I sat down to watch it in Blu-ray I never could have anticipated just how much more emotional this film comes across in high definition. The 1080p video shows every outline, every shadow or trace of light. There is much more in the way of texture than the DVD version could provide. The new DTS HD audio remix is excellent although I did prefer the original stereo sound track to give a greater feel of intimacy. As always the commentary track by Scorsese is like going to film school. He moves between behind the scenes details of the production to the tiniest details of his choices as director. This is a work of art and Blu-ray is the only way to truly appreciate its greatness.