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A still from Raging Bull
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Best Films of the 80s

Raging Bull
Release Date: 14 November 1980
Director: Martin Scorsese

Scorsese's masterpiece is a constantly spellbinding film, right from the opening credits. As Pietro Mascagni's immeasurably sad Cavalleria Rusticana intermezzo plays over the greyness of it all, a boxer -- still in his pre-fight silk robe, the prizefighter robe -- is glimpsed leaping onto his toes. Nimbly he dodges and weaves, feints and leans in -- all by himself in an empty ring, as the tragic music approaches an epic quality, and the magnificently self-assured camera, doesn't move a millimetre.

That first distant look at Robert De Niro's take on Jake La Motta comes from the perspective of a standing front-row fan, an astonished commentator rising to his feet or even the glovesman's manager; whoever be watching, like us, is frozen to the spot in awe -- we are aware of something very special unfolding in front of us.

The legendary facts behind the making -- that De Niro pushed a convalescing Marty to make the film, the director later crediting that for bringing him back to life; that the actor put on 60 pounds and trained as a boxer, winning matches in Brooklyn; that Bob and Joe Pesci, playing brothers, lived and trained together and became great friends forever; that Scorsese and De Niro overhauled the entire script in two weeks -- would normally be enough to overshadow the movie itself, but then the movie is Raging Bull. And nothing about it is normal.

A fascinating black and white biopic about a faded boxer's life flickering alive in flashback -- and home movies, seen in grainy colour -- this is one of the most rousing, compelling and subtly crafted character studies seen in American cinema. It is a modern masterpiece in every way, and one that established De Niro as the finest English-language actor of his generation.

Every scene is crafted to perfection, every line nuanced. Which is why, in this lovely bit involving Jake snapping over a potentially overcooked steak -- discord obviously arising from fidelity issues more than a piece of beef -- we are wowed when he, between bites, tosses in the abruptly articulate line that overcooking 'defeats its own purpose.'

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