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 forebears---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.