I was 11 years old the first time I saw Raging Bull. And if you are wondering, yes, that’s probably too young. It was a Friday night in November. Snow on the ground and a chill in the air. I asked my mom if I could stay up late and watch it.
My mom, like me, thought I was going to be watching an old boxing movie. It was, after all, in black and white.
About 130 minutes later, I sat in front of the TV slack jawed. I did not have a full understanding of what I saw. While Raging Bull is impossibly dynamic and cinematic, it’s not necessarily what you would call fun.
Jake LaMotta’s story has less to do with who he fought in the ring than who he battles outside of it. Which is to say, just about everyone. Including himself. Wildly self-destructive, and often terribly unpleasant (or worse), it was a hell of a thing to watch while just reaching puberty.
But watch it I did. I wanted to have someone to talk to about it later, but I couldn’t tell my mom. She would have been aghast by me relaying all the sordid goings on depicted in the film. My friends at school either hadn’t seen it, or took the wrong things from it.
Not that I knew what the right things were, mind you. But I knew there was something more there. It would take years and several more viewings for me to get my head around all that Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro accomplished.
Sure, they did a brilliant job of depicting a life lived both fully and often horribly, but it went so much deeper than that. You could argue LaMotta was a cave man and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. He was however, beset by demons. And not many knuckle draggers have demons.
They managed to make a man who might outwardly appear to be little more than a brute and make him human. Even when he behaved like a savage.
As far as the boxing part goes, you will likely never see a stronger depiction of brutality on film. The scene where DeNiro’s LaMotta lets Sugar Ray Robinson brutalize him against the ropes, offering no offense or defense, just a “Hit me, Ray”, the dark blood splatter was so visceral, you might have checked your shirt to see if you got any of it on you. LaMotta loses that fight. Badly. But to him, the victory is in standing upright at the end of the fight. “You never got me down, Ray.” It’s an alarming brand of self-loathing and machismo, which quintessentially describes the character and his life.
At the end of the movie you might think to yourself ” what else in life could LaMotta have done for an occupation?” Short of breaking thumbs for a lone-shark, there is nothing. The only legal job available to LaMotta was that of a boxer.
As for me, it changed my views on cinema. On sport. On life. In ways I’m still grappling to understand.
“Hey ma, can I stay up late and watch a boxing movie?”
“I guess.” she replied.
Nothing was the same after that.