Some of the boxing sequences are so well choreographed that they’re almost like watching dancing; others are so brutal as to make us feel Jake LaMotta’s (Robert De Niro) rage.
Furthermore, very few movies use point of view shots as well as Raging Bull.
Indeed, every filmmaking element works to immerse us in Jake’s worldview, to make us understand him better than he understands himself.
The performances help as well. De Niro won an Oscar for Raging Bull, and he deserved it. Forget the physical transformation. Consider instead all of his first-rate acting.
Plus, Joe Pesci is scene-stealing as Joey, and Moriarty is equally great.
For all of that, Raging Bull is imperfect. First, it frequently leaps forward in time so awkwardly that events are hard to track, as when LaMotta is banned from boxing. Yes, such temporal leaps help communicate LaMotta’s psyche, but they are still overdone.
More importantly, female characters are undefined, even Vicki. I know Raging Bull is about men who do not understand women, which gives the filmmakers reason to under-develop feminine characters, but Scorcese and his writers go too far. It is fine that Jake has no concept of Vicki’s personality, but it is not fine that the we don’t either. Why does she agree to sleep with a married man? Why does she marry him? Why does she forgive him when he beats her? Why does she finally, after so much abuse, divorce him? We don’t know, because Scorcese doesn’t show us.
Likewise, LaMotta’s first wife disappears from the picture, without explanation or conflict. This too is a flaw.
In the end, there is a lot to like about Raging Bull, much more than there is to dislike. But one of the best movies ever? Even Scorcese’s finest? No.