Martin Scorsese’s luminous study of a man at war with his own nature remains undimmed after almost 30 years and this is a rare chance to catch the big-screen version in all its monochrome majesty.
Robert De Niro famously buffed - and then bulked – up for his feral take on ‘40s blue-collar pugilist Jake La Motta and he captures the fighter’s tragic duality in a career-best (Oscar-winning) performance of wild and wiry defiance. In the ring, he pulps opponents with unswerving wrath and resolve. In daily life, unable to settle the torrents of paranoia and self-loathing sloshing around inside him, he slowly alienates himself from sultry wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and timid manager/brother Joey (Joe Pesci).
Scorsese spurns the schlock-‘em-sock-‘em Rocky style for brute hyperrealism: slo-mo spatters of spit and grit; the front-row speckled with atomised crimson; gleaming bruises; buckled jaws; eyebrows blasted to burger… His camera is in lust/disgust with LaMotta’s monstrosity, searching every steaming pore for pain and shame. In between bouts, Scorsese tracks Jake's broken nosedive from punch-drunk to plain drunk; a slurring raconteur pacing the stage of his shabby nightclub, world reduced from flashbulb-scorched adoration to dwindling patters of cricket applause.
At rock-bottom, imprisoned after sex with an underage girl, the caged beast pummels the cell wall, smearing his own shadow with boiled-over blood. Marty holds the shot steady, refusing to flinch from the movie's essence: for all his glory, LaMotta could never find the guts to conquer his own worst enemy: himself.