April issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 10 years ago

Long before The Wolf of Wall Street, there was the Bronx Bull. Martin Scorsese’s gritty, autobiographical film about the Italian American middleweight boxer, Jake LaMatta (Robert De Niro), who battles his own demons as he takes on contenders in and out of the ring, is often cited as his best film to date.

Raging Bull (1980) is another Scorsese film centered in New York, in the Little Italy district. We are first introduced to our protagonist as an out-of-shape stand-up comedian. “I know I’m no Olivier, but if he fought Sugar Ray, he would say that the thing ain’t the ring. It’s the play,” he soliloquies.

Flashback to the past: we see a much thinner LaMatta in his glory days; a boxing duel between him and Jim Reeves shows the rock-star like status he once enjoyed. The scene also gives us a glimpse into the kind of environment LaMatta inhabits: the boxing arena as a blood, sweat and testosterone-ridden world with cigar-smoking gangsters and gamblers on the sidelines. Though the clear loser, Reeves is declared the champ in LaMatta’s first loss, and the crowd goes ballistic. A woman gets trampled in the mini-stampede caused by the chaos.

With its black-and-white, partially neo-realistic aesthetic, Raging Bull is less of a sports film — though there are plenty of graphic boxing matches as well as a good dose of non-boxing related fist fights — and more about the psychology of a man who harbours crippling insecurities and feelings of sexual inadequacy beneath the tough, wise-cracking veneer. His young wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarti), whom he approaches with both awe and an irrational sense of possession, becomes the victim of his paranoia. Vickie’s innocuous remark about another boxer being “good-looking,” leads him to pound his face to pulp in jealous rage during a match, so he won’t be “pretty no more.”

Ultimately, LaMatta’s animalistic temper, his self-doubt and his inability to trust those closest to him — particularly his younger brother, Joey (Joe Pesci in his breakthrough role), who looks out for him throughout — are his fatal flaws.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s April 2014 issue under the headline, “Hitting the Bull’s Eye.”

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.