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Time Out New York Project: Issue #788, November 4-10, 2010
Dir. Martin Scorsese. 1980. R. 129mins. Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci.
It’s the big three-oh for Martin Scorsese’s bloody, beloved black-and-white biopic of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta (De Niro), and the film’s ineffable strangeness hasn’t diminished. As conceived by director Scorsese and his collaborators, LaMotta is less of a character than a hollowed-out, spiritualist plaything. The church, of course, is cinema: Many have noted LaMotta’s affinity to Roberto Rossellini’s Saint Francis of Assisi (he does indeed look like a hopped-up fighter monk in the film’s incredible title sequence). And you can see Scorsese lovingly aping his boxing-film forbears — Robert Wise’s despondent The Set-Up is holy writ for the hallucinatory in-the-ring brawls.
But when has a performer as fully and uniquely sacrificed himself to the moving-picture cause as De Niro? He leeches LaMotta of soul and conscience, making him a purely physical creature sculpted in sinew for the glory days, then padded up in lard for the declining years. No makeup assist — De Niro did it all himself with exercise and added calories. It’s the human body as special effect, very much of a piece with, yet also a DIY rebuke to, the tent-pole blockbusters that were then asserting themselves in the public consciousness. His transformation has a mysterious purity about it that imitators (say, Christian Bale, who fluctuates masochistically between waist sizes) have never been able to attain.—Keith Uhlich
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