Meanwhile, other new films are disappointing in other ways. Raging Bull comes from the gifted Martin Scorsese, working again with the brilliant Robert De Niro. Screenwriter Paul Schrader is also on hand, sharing script credit with Mardik Martin.
It's a heavyweight team, but a lightweight movie. De Niro plays prizefighter Jake La Motta, whose career ranges from the heights of championship to the depths of allegedly throwing a match deliberately. Along the way, this dubious hero spends most of his time worrying about his wife's fidelity.
It might have been fascinating, or at least instructive, to probe the mind of a rough-and-ready character like this. But the film has no moral or psychological center for the characters and incidents to latch onto. It's incredibly repetitious -- there are more brawls and four-letter words than in most dozen movies combined -- and there's no clear destination for all the sound and fury. One respects the intensity of the effort -- De Niro, for example, gained some 55 pounds for his realistic portrayal of the aging La Motta -- but dedication is no substitute for direction.
So it's a lackluster season, thus far, and even foreign films aren't stepping in to salvage it. A new picture from Ingmar Bergman is always big news, given his enduring fame and popularity, but his latest is a minor offering.
It's called From the Life of the Marionettes, because its characters appear to be manipulated by inner forces they neither understand nor control. The protagonist is a man suffering from an obsessive fear that he will kill his wife. Violence does break loose, though it is aimed in a somewhat different direction. The culmination of the plot is a particularly disgusting rape and murder, with Bergman stressing the squalor of the brothel where it occurs.
Bergman isn't out to titillate us, or to exploit the sordid aspects of his story. Rather, this is a serious study of human desperation. Yet the study leads nowhere, except to scene after scene of gloomy actors complaining into the camera. These "marionettes" have little to do with the sense of exalted tragedy that distinguished many of Bergman's early dramas. They, and their director, are just moping. And that's not enough.