The Magazine

Down for the Count

Brutality, boxing--and what else?

Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By KYLE SMITH
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Bravo for rejecting the idea that a wayward individual is just a feather on a polluted breeze. But in stripping away any hint of what is going on inside La Motta, Scorsese goes too far in the other direction. Motivation is not "an antiquated idea," but the essential component of character, and the boiling anger of De Niro's performance does not "do him as a human being." That makes the film, for all its beautiful images, shallow. It is a celluloid bimbo, because Scorsese doesn't care what's going on inside his protagonist.

"Why should anybody say anything came from anywhere?" Scorsese asked the Times in 1980. "Reasons? We never discussed reasons." That existential shrug is chilling.

Does any allegedly great film have less inventive dialogue? Even the most ardent fans of Raging Bull do not walk around with its words on their lips, because the lines are so utilitarian, so undistinguished, that if you cited them in conversation no one would guess what movie you were referring to. There is "Shut up, I'm gonna smack you in the face" and "You f--my wife?" and "You're so stupid," and much more of the same. Even 2001, a film whose dialogue is tightly rationed and purposefully anodyne, has its "Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?"

Critics of Raging Bull generally find its barbarism vital: Some people are like this, they say. It doesn't take long to figure out which people they are talking about. Wrote Kroll, "Scorsese shows the whole 1940s macho Italian Catholic Mafia culture of the Bronx as an inside-out world, a Vatican of violence . . . violence is the sacrament of this culture." Canby praised the film for refusing to "explain away in either sociological or psychiatric terms, or even in terms of the Roman Catholicism of [La Motta's] Italian-American heritage." So Canby thought the three possible reasons for La Motta's outbursts are: He's poor, he's nuts, he's Catholic.

De Niro and Scorsese's La Motta is so lacking in awareness of himself or his achievements that, when he needs bail money, he mindlessly hammers the jewels out of his championship belt one by one instead of taking the whole belt to the pawn shop. Only for one moment does he seem to reflect. After he is robbed of a victory on points, La Motta tells his brother, "I done a lot of bad things, Joey, maybe it's coming back to me." That's early in the film. By the end, when he's tired and fat and reduced to giving halting performances of the I-coulda-been-a-contender monologue from On the Waterfront at night clubs, he has, Scorsese tells us, learned nothing. The Terry Malloy speech is about how throwing a fight destroyed his life. In choosing Malloy's words, La Motta seems to reveal that, after a lifetime of thuggery, he still thinks the only thing he ever did wrong was to take a dive against Billy Fox.

Contrast the character's lack of perception with this man's:

It's impossible to describe the smell of a tenement to someone who's never lived in one. You can't just put your head in the door and sniff. You have to live there day and night, summer and winter, so the smell gets a chance to sink into your soul. There's all the dirt that the super never really manages to get clean even on the days when he does an hour's work, and this dirt has a smell, gray and dry and after you've smelled it long enough, suffocating. And diapers. The slobs who live in tenements are always having kids and naturally they don't have the money for any diaper service, so the old lady is always boiling diapers on the stove and after a while the smell gets into the walls.

That's La Motta, in his book, Raging Bull. In a few lines we understand everything about this man: who he was, where he came from, the color of his soul. He sees and he feels. The film lies. He is not an animal.

Kyle Smith is movie critic for the New York Post.