I decided to give Raging Bull another chance. It's almost universally admired, one of (if not the) best movies from arguably our greatest living director. I've never understood that. I can think of at least 8 Scorsese movies I like better, and next to classics like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and The Last Waltz, well, it doesn't belong in their company. But I couldn't escape the feeling that I was being unfair to the film, so I watched it this time with something resembling an open mind.
Start with Robert De Niro. He is great, no doubt. The fat transformation does some of the work for him, but in Jake's leaner days (which make up most of the movie), De Niro exudes a barely-contained violence against the world, and his face tells us this man thinks he is misunderstood. So yes, it's a great performance, worthy of the Oscar he won. And it's not really a biopic, which is nice.
But it's not really anything else, either. Why was this movie made? I don't mean why did Scorsese make it, what did it mean to him personally, I mean, as a viewer, do we ever get a feeling for why Scorsese made it, for why it needed to be made? I admit, I don't think so. The real-life Jake LaMotta is peripherally interesting and no more, and the movie Jake doesn't have levels. He's elemental, he just is, kinda like the movie itself. The boxing scenes are impressionistic, and putting the camera inside the ring with the fighters is effective, but you have to suspend disbelief because even though the structure generally follows the actual fights, they are completely unreal as presented.
My favorite trivia item from the IMDB: "Robert De Niro kept a copy of Pauline Kael's scathing review of the film with his penned in retorts such as, 'So?', 'That's the point!'" The funny thing is, it's nowhere near as scathing as Kael can be. Metacritic read it and assigned it rating of 70/100, below the average of critics in general, but 70 for Metacritic is a positive review. Apparently, though, for De Niro and I imagine for the film's many fans, 70/100 for Raging Bull is insulting.