Blu-ray Review: Raging Bull (1980) -- 30th Anniversary Edition

Now Available to Own 

Regardless of differences in the medium, message and/or methodology, undoubtedly the ultimate goal of those who “create” – as a career or out of compulsion – is to share their own particular point-of-view with others.

And as seemingly impossible and staggeringly impressive as it is to create even one unparalleled cinematic instant classic, because filmmaker Martin Scorsese's career is essentially overflowing with masterpieces, it's become challenging not only to identify which film we could call his Magnum opus but also just what it is that sets his movies apart from the rest.

On the surface, the films are viscerally potent and -- in the case of Raging Bull-- so emotionally draining that it's easy to be overwhelmed during the first viewing. Yet in order to fully grasp the “bigger picture,” it's necessary to step back from Bull. Furthermore, process it almost as if all of the individual images captured in the 24 frames that make up just one second in its overall 129 minute running time were still-photos rather than moving pictures edited by Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

And in doing so with the good fortune of this flawless high definition restoration and Blu-ray print transfer of the Library of Congress dubbed “National Treasure,” you're struck by how intensely personal Scorsese's 1980 epic is to the point wherein it's almost as if instead of only focusing on boxer Jake LaMotta, Scorsese was also sharing with us a portion of himself at the exact same time.

It's a feat that's all the more impressive considering the tremendous amount of work involved in the art of filmmaking. For unlike painters musicians and writers who have the utmost control over the execution of their craft, it takes vast numbers of craftsman, collaborators and (sometimes) corporations to deliver a film from initial concept to final cut.

But rather than embrace the style of semi-autobiographical cathartic filmmaking made popular in the '70s as seen in Bob Fosse's extraordinarily experimental confessional opus All that Jazz, Scorsese preferred to instead live vicariously through the art form of biography so that even though Bull metaphorically dealt with issues prevalent in Scorsese's life, at the end of the day it was still a biopic.  

Yet as daring as the concept was, everything comes together in Scorsese's magnificent Raging Bull, which reunited him once again with his male muse and most adept collaborator from the beginning in the form of his Taxi Driver leading man and Mean Streets discovery, Robert De Niro.

The description of Bull as a labor of love is incredibly fitting given the fact that the sheer passion and raw power evident in his towering performance culminated in the Oscar awarded to Robert De Niro, who'd been obsessed with the project for years after reading LaMotta's biography while filming his first Oscar winning performance in The Godfather, Part II.

Unfortunately convincing Scorsese to commit was a different story altogether as he was hesitant to tackle a boxing movie, particularly after the phenomenal success of Sylvester Stallone's underdog crowd-pleaser Rocky, which incidentally would share some behind-the-scenes producers in common.

Nevertheless, eventually Scorsese wound up changing his mind in a heart-to-heart conversation shared with De Niro after the filmmaker suffered an overdose and begin thinking of Jake La Motta's plight as a fighter in the ring as a metaphor for handling life's right-hooks head-on.

An altogether different take on a boxing film, Scorsese's highly personal handling of the material inspired a cinematic renaissance in not just biopics but the entire –and previously wholly predictable – onscreen depiction of athletics, taking us inside the ring to make viewers feel just as vulnerable, off-balance yet oddly adrenaline fueled as the fighters.

And further linking the idea that when done correctly, fight choreography should be as engrossing, authentic and awe-inspiring as dance sequences in musicals, in addition to having cinematographer Michael Chapman be opposite De Niro to give us the opponent's-eye-view of the fight, Bull employed Arthur Murray dance school techniques to expertly choreograph some of La Motta's most famous matches.

Shot in black and white for a multitude of reasons in keeping it authentic for the time period overall, Bull is as hauntingly gorgeous as it is unflinchingly gritty. And frequently, it repels and seduces us within mere seconds of screen time, moving from a horrific nightclub fight between Jake's loyal yet long-suffering brother Joey (a tremendous Joe Pesci) and a mobster that fades right into an idyllic rainy day establishing shot.

While as in a majority of Scorsese films including subsequent De Niro/Pesci opuses like GoodFellas and Casino, male camaraderie is the main agenda but Bull particularly commands our attention when Scorsese breaks through the thick testosterone indicative stench of blood and sweat with a sensuous display of femininity.

Disconcerting in its Kubrickian Lolita-like composition yet irrefutably glamorous, one of Bull's most unforgettable moments is in the unabashedly beautiful introductory shot of fifteen-year-old Brooklyn neighborhood girl Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) who basks in the rays of the sun and the male gaze of drooling middle-aged married men like La Motta at a local pool before she becomes Jake's second wife.

Aesthetically, Scorsese's odyssey is reminiscent of a European-American hybrid of Fellini's late '50s, early '60s work and the Italian Neorealist pictures helmed by directors like Roberto Rossellini that inspired Scorsese in his youth and were once again on his mind with his then-recent marriage to Roberto's actress daughter Isabella Rossellini.

In stark contrast to the brutality on display, Bull is both artistically inspiring and endlessly surprising from utilizing a beautiful classical track from Scorsese's own record collection for the main title sequence to incorporating lines from both Richard III and On the Waterfront via Bull's bold framing device wherein La Motta preps for his nightclub act.

Creatively autobiographical while essentially biographical, Scorsese's “personal” masterpiece is “given a stage where [his] Bull can rage,” in this technically superlative thirtieth anniversary Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release of Raging Bull, which offers new interviews with those who labored over their Raging love in the creation of one of the filmmaker's indisputable, still-undefeated masterpieces of American film.
Martin Scorsese

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.