Reel Classic: Raging Bull


Written by Lily Davis.

raging bull

The film partnership between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro must undoubtedly be one of the greatest of all time. The pair had proven an exceptional team in 1973 with Mean Streets and then again in 1976 with Taxi Driver. But if anyone were still in doubt, which seems impossible, the release of Raging Bull in 1980 would surely make them eat their own words.

De Niro plays Jake LaMotta, a boxer from the Bronx, with a penchant for violence that extends far beyond the ring. We witness this man bully, struggle and fight his way through life. The film spans from 1941-1964, detailing his biggest fights and the gradual estrangement from his family and loved ones. This could just be a gritty sports biopic but it’s a film about so much more than just boxing.

The story was based on Jake LaMotta’s own memoir. De Niro stumbled across Raging Bull: My Story and became fascinated with the character before passing it onto Martin Scorsese. The screenplay was first developed by Mardik Martin and then re-written by Paul Schrader. Both had worked with Scorsese on Mean Streets and Taxi Driver consecutively. It was De Niro and Scorsese that made the final magic touches themselves. No one can question the mastery of the hands this film passed through, beginning with the superb screenplay.


The way the character of LaMotta is constructed is outstanding. He lives for the spotlight. Whether it be battering another body in the ring or performing stand up comedy routines to dwindling audiences; the public arena is where he seems most self-assured. It is incredibly difficult to find redeeming qualities in such an unlikable man. He possesses some truly disturbing qualities; his extreme jealousy, his lack of regard for other people and his quick fuse, snapping to violent heights in a heartbeat. Perhaps we feel a small sense of sympathy for him only as he slowly destroys his life; distancing himself from everyone he ultimately cares about.

De Niro does an extraordinary job in his portrayal, completely absorbing himself in the character. This is character acting at its finest. De Niro even gained an extra 60 pounds for the scenes in LaMotta’s later life. If anyone were ever in doubt about Robert De Niro’s capabilities as an actor, I would immediately direct them towards Raging Bull.  His performance forms part of the backbone of this film. There are also outstanding performances from Joe Pesci, as his brother, and Cathy Moriarty, as his second wife. Both were relatively undiscovered at the time, yet after Raging Bull Pesci in particular would go on to enjoy many more wonderful roles. The three leads would become Academy Award nominees for this film, with only De Niro taking home the golden statuette. It is a great travesty that while Scorsese was also nominated he wasn’t rewarded with the title of best director that year.

ragin bull deniro scorsese

Raging Bull is a visual masterpiece. Scorsese has a way of depicting violence that is quite beautiful. The fight sequences, while if in some ways are a little dated, demonstrate superb cinematography. De Niro trained with LaMotta himself for these scenes, which are portrayed with a strong brutality and realism. Despite this violence, there are moments in the film that are visually poetic, which is a testament to the work of cinematographer Michael Chapman. The unusual decision to film in black and white pays off immensely, only adding to the visual spectacle of the film. This is striking in the opening titles, as De Niro dances in slow motion around the ring. This image is mesmerising, as is so much of the film, which is only complimented by the marvellous soundtrack.

Scorsese’s masterpiece is unforgettable. So much of this film will stick in one’s mind long after being viewed. Like so many of his other films, Raging Bull is a modern classic, and the work of a true film master and film lover.

– L.D.