Martin Scorsese's obsession with a dubious mystique of masculinity turns "Raging Bull" into a ponderous work of metaphysical cinematic bull.
Opening today at area theaters, "Raging Bull" is Scorsese's opaque interpretation of the autobiography of former middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, played by Robert De Niro. As envisioned by Scorsese and embodied by De Niro, La Motta seems more emblematic than recognizably human.
A uniquely alienating movie pugilist, he emerges without the dignity of either a victim or survivor. Instead, he appears to be an unmitigated brute and slob.Impossible to identify or sympathize with in conventional dramatic terms, he's the oddest choice of a protagonist, even an anti-heroic protagonist, in movie history.
La Motta's checkered, controversial professional career, which begun during World War II and ended in the early '50s, has no discernible dramatic pattern as depicted by Scorsese. The screenplay seems to be hitting highlights at random.
We're exposed to Jake as a stout old club comic and lecturer (De Niro) went so far in the pursuit of verisimilitude for its own sake that he gained 60 pounds to embody the character in grossly overweight retirement); Jake as a young contender in the '40s; Jake breaking up with his first wife and falling for his second, whom he subsequently alienates out of tyrannical jealousy; Jake resisting Mafia support (although it's difficult to see why: Nicholas Colosanto as a solicitous old mobster seems to represent civilized behavior in this picture); Jake winning the championship; Jake getting in trouble with the law while a club owner in Florida.
The ignorance and violence that make the movie Jake so repellent are associated with some mystic notion of masculinity in the raw. Scorsese and De Niro even seem to derive a perverse pleasure from the delusion that they've located the unguarded primitive brute lurking somewhere in every masculine psyche.
The boxing scenes allow the director to work out his aggressions in a brutally artistic way. Scorsese doesn't trace La Motta's career. One boxing interlude seems to have no more dramatic or historical significance than another. Ultimately, he exploits boxing as a pretext for cinematic spectacle, subjecting the audience to a climactic visceral battering, as stereophonic sound magnifies the impact of punches and slashing cuts open across noses and brows, spattering ringsiders and the camera lens with imaginary blood.
At its most practical, realistic level, the movie might be interpreted as a cautionary fable about Why Girls Get Fed Up With Jealous Italian American Boyfriends and Husbands. A preponderant hunk of footage is devoted to sequences of fraternal and marital discussion and/or disputation. These passages, like the rest of the picture, have the curious effect of impressing you with their immediate social and colloquial authenticity without simultaneously illuminating the crucial drives or desires of the characters.
The fraternal exchanges involve De Niro and Joe Pesci as La Motta's brother-manager, Joey. They've perfected a slangy, profane familiarity and a circumlocutory speech pattern that probably is an uncanny imitation of life, but the more you're exposed to it, the less you care about eavesdropping.
What might be more revealing is documentation that illuminates the family life Jake and Joey sprang from. Where are Mom and Pop La Motta? Who were they? Scorsese, preoccupied with the metaphysical Jake, never bothers to fill in the missing background.
The marital exchanges match De Niro as a presumptuous, domineering husband against newcomer Cathy Moriarty as La Motta's second wife Vickie, a voluptuous blonde teen-ager whose customary langorous passivity is occasionally disrupted by her mate's jealous nagging and browbeating, provoking her into angry retaliation. Moriarty's sex appeal is obvious enough, and it could be sufficient to explain La Motta's insane jealousy, the only trace of a sustained motive the movie possesses, although it can't explain where La Motta's aggression originated and why he began boxing.
What is never clarified is the nature of La Motta's attraction for Vickie. She doesn't indicate any fundamental yen for the violence he radiates, although it would make sense if she did. The picture might have evolved into a study of marital folie a deux if Vickie's motives were examined.
We're unprepared for De Niro's splashiest outbursts -- his breakdown after throwing a fight (he's a man of honor all of a sudden?) or his exclamations of "I am not an animal!" while bashing his head against the walls of a Florida jail. He's not? If there's a poignant human soul beneath the animal, it never surfaces.
Reaching for notes of pathos that don't make sense in this context, Scorsese gives us the portly old Jake reading Brando's famous "I coulda been a contender" speech from "On the Waterfront," a lament that has no apparent relevance to Jake's career. Finally, Scorsese invokes the Bible and quotes John 9:24-25, where the blind man cured by Christ testifies "whereas I was blind, now I see." I wish I could see how this applies to Jake La Motta. Does Scorsese really believe that he has granted La Motta a form of artistic redemption?