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After 25 years, 'Raging Bull' still packs a wallop

The film that many consider the finest of its decade, ''Raging Bull," has aged well, and not just because it was filmed in black and white. A tremendously assured film about a despicable man, it was admired in 1980 but hardly loved; today, it's very clearly the seed from which Tony Soprano and our other modern antiheroes grew -- and the film for which Martin Scorsese should have won the directing Oscar. The movie opens today at the Brattle Theatre for a weeklong 25th anniversary run, and while the restored 35mm print is the same as on the recent DVD release, some films are made for the big screen and this is one of them.

Twenty-five years ago, many viewers found Robert De Niro's performance as boxing champion Jake LaMotta to be just this side of a freak show, but it set a new standard for the physical punishments actors are willing to endure for a role, and De Niro's Academy Award for best actor opened the door to an entire generation of body-morphing Oscar winners (say ''Thank you," Charlize Theron). What's even clearer now is how the actor used his body as a painter's canvas to convey the inarticulate emotions roiling beneath his character. It has been a long time since De Niro has turned in a performance this uncompromising; his current run of Focker fathers-in-law and American Express shills can't begin to compare.

The violence in the film's ring was off-putting back then, too, in no small part because Scorsese, cinematographer Michael Chapman, and sound effects wizard Frank Warner imbued the fight scenes with frightening beauty. Time in ''Raging Bull" slows down to capture the blood jetting from a smashed nose, speeds up to carom around the combatants; jungle animals roar on the soundtrack; the air itself seems to warp with the intensity of battle (mainly because Scorsese filmed with a row of flames just below the camera lens).

By contrast, the scenes that take place outside the ring have a squalid poetry that today plays like reality TV's richer, more tragic forebear (either that, or like Tony and Carmela playing for keeps). When Jake meets future wife Vicki (played with off-the-street rawness by Cathy Moriarty), Scorsese consciously films it as a gutter version of Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in ''On the Waterfront," and LaMotta's self-propelled descent into decay and ruin is like being present at an unexpected car wreck. The entire film works its way up to the shadowy jail scene in which LaMotta pounds his head and fists into the wall with helpless animal rage.

Above all, ''Raging Bull" is a portrait of a brute who came to self-knowledge only late in the game, and even then it flickers on and off over his head like a faulty light bulb. In the final scene, the has-been boxer turned nightclub impressionist flatly rehearses Brando's speech from ''Waterfront," and the pathos is overwhelming. But for himself, LaMotta could have been a contender with staying power, and he knows it. If you're not moved by that, then Scorsese -- and, by extension, the entire aesthetic of his filmmaking generation -- is simply not for you.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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