SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never seen Raging Bull before, I highly encourage you to watch it before reading my review. I’ll discuss my feelings and emotions about the film, and I wouldn’t want that to color anyone else’s first experience. There’s a reason this film is routinely listed as one of the all-time greats. You may, however, want to skip down to the end of this post for a quick note on the film’s content prior to watching the film. It is certainly violent and may not be appropriate for all viewers.
Have you ever tried to communicate a deep belief to someone? I’m talking about those parts of you that are at the core of who you are. You can’t really come right out and say directly what you mean. At least, I can’t. I find myself talking in circles and never really getting to the heart of what I want to say. I’ve found that stories and metaphors are really the best way to try to communicate when you’re dealing with such topics. Often, this leaves things open to interpretation, but at least you can get out some semblance of what is inside you. That brings me to the film I want to discuss today - Martin Scorsese’s 1980 classic Raging Bull.
I’ve seen this film three times now. Most recently, I saw it at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. They were showing it as part of a mini-retrospective on the works of Paul Schrader, who co-wrote the film with Mardik Martin. I was so moved that I had to walk around Notre Dame’s campus on a cold, December night just to process what I had seen.
Why is this film so moving? What makes it so great? Well, I can only speak for myself. One of the great aspects of art is that there are so many interpretations. Some will tell you that Raging Bull is another in the line of great Scorsese dramas about a man who is set off from mainstream society. A loner. A misfit. Others will cite it as one of the greatest cinematic examples of a man who simply cannot relate to women - a look at the real-life implications of what Freud called the “madonna-whore complex.” The great Roger Ebert wrote about this aspect of the film in his review, for instance. To many, it is the greatest sports movie of all-time, as the film focuses on the life of former world middleweight champion, Jake LaMotta (played in the film by Robert De Niro). All of those aspects are certainly prevalent in the film, but I love the film for other reasons. We’ll get there, but it would be selfish of me to go any further in this review without mentioning the basic plot components of the film.
We begin with what is arguably the greatest opening credits sequence in movie history. LaMotta prepares himself in the ring as “Intermezzo” from the opera Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni plays. This sequence is enrapturing. The music swells as LaMotta’s coiled rage smolders in the ring. It is the perfect setup to what the film will ultimately attempt to do. We then quickly cut to a scene of an older, more rotund LaMotta practicing a comedy routine in 1964. We aren’t given much context before we are whisked back to 1941 with LaMotta facing Jimmy Reeves in a middleweight boxing match.
Throughout the film, we watch as LaMotta experiences the gratifying highs and desolate lows of boxing stardom. We meet his brother, Joey LaMotta (Joe Pesci), one of Jake’s managers and his closest confidant. Jake is married as the film begins, but his attention quickly turns to Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a young blonde who hangs out with the mafia bosses that frequent Jake’s fights. Scorsese favorite Frank Vincent also appears in the film as Salvy Batts, a mafia underboss. The main boss, Tommy Como, is actually played by Nicholas Colasanto, who is most famous for his performance as “Coach” Ernie Pantusso on the television show Cheers.
Increasingly, we watch as the violence LaMotta displays in the ring spills out into his everyday life. He is paranoid about his relationship with Vickie. They eventually get married, but he still cannot shake the feeling that she is interested in other men. He concocts wild rumors and believes them to be true. So much so, that he drives himself to the rage he famously exhibited inside the ring.
The domestic violence scenes are excruciating to watch, as are the scenes of LaMotta in the ring. Scorsese depicts both with brutal detail. In the ring, blood and sweat spurts off the faces of the fighters as Scorsese’s camera is always up close with the action. We’re right in the middle of it, which adds to the claustrophobic feeling. At home, we see LaMotta’s rage in equal detail, and it is no less frightening.
This may be De Niro’s greatest performance. That would be quite the statement considering his other noteworthy roles. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Raging Bull, and his demand to put on extra weight for the filming of the later scenes is absolutely astounding. You almost cannot tell that the same actor is portraying both versions of the character.
In fact, De Niro was the one who came to Scorsese with this project. At the time, Scorsese had tasted the highs and lows of fame himself. His addiction to drugs had him at a low before De Niro encouraged him to make this film. Scorsese has said that the production of Raging Bull was an experience that allowed him to find himself again.
And so we return to the question I posed earlier - what makes this film so moving? Why should we care about this brutally violent boxer who goes on to become a cut-rate comedian and nightclub owner?
At the end of the film, a verse from the Gospel of John appears on screen. It is John 9:24-26, which reads:
So, for the second time, [the Pharisees] summoned the man who had been blind and said: “Speak the truth before God. We know this fellow is a sinner.”
”Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,” the man replied. “All I know is this: once I was blind and now I can see.”
There are many interpretations as to the meaning of Scorsese putting this verse at the end of the film. The film’s ending also contains a postscript that remembers Haig P. Manoogian, who was one of Scorsese’s teachers. Some interpret the verse as Scorsese’s way of saying that, despite some of the negative things that had been said about Manoogian, Scorsese felt that he owed the man a great deal. That he had helped Scorsese to “see” metaphorically. This reading may also be supported by the fact that Schrader disagreed with Scorsese’s decision to put this particular verse at the end. He felt that it didn’t serve the film’s purpose, since (in Schrader’s estimation) LaMotta had not changed much throughout the film.
While I won’t begrudge anyone their interpretation of the film, none of the above is what makes it so meaningful to me. To me it is about judgment and truth.
We inherently judge everyone we see. We weigh their actions even if we don’t realize it consciously. Movies offer a unique window through which we judge characters. We see elements of their lives that we wouldn’t see in real life. This makes us feel like we have even more right to make judgments about them.
But do we really know enough about Jake LaMotta at the end of the film to decide whether or not he has been redeemed? He may be the same person. He may not be. He has served time for some of his crimes, but we have certainly seen other sins for which he has not been punished.
And there begins another conversation that flows out of the film - punishment for sins and the guilt we all feel about our own. LaMotta takes such a beating in the ring. At times it seems like he wants to be mutilated. It may be the only way he feels he can absolve himself of the guilt that stalks him outside the ring. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ offers the only true absolution for sins. Without placing trust in Him and his death and resurrection, we are left to do exactly what Jake LaMotta does - find our own ways to deal with the guilt that comes from sin.
LaMotta’s inescapable guilt reaches its zenith in a scene that makes me cry every time I see it. He is in jail after allowing an underage girl in his bar. The scene is beautifully lit by Michael Chapman. The cell is mostly dark save for a few slivers of light that LaMotta weaves in and out of. He then begins punching the wall and brutalilizing himself while he screams “Why, why, why” before sitting down in agony and proclaiming “I’m not an animal.” It is both one of the most visceral acting performances I’ve ever seen and one of the most heart-wrenching moments.
We do not know if Jake LaMotta finds ultimate redemption. The short scene of him practicing his routine at the very end may suggest that LaMotta has found some level of success. It should be noted that his routine includes pieces from some of the era’s great writers, and we watch as he rehearses a performance of those famous lines that Budd Schulberg wrote for Marlon Brando in the 1954 film On the Waterfront - the “I coulda been a contender” speech. That film, too, is about a sinner who finds redemption. Is Jake LaMotta another Terry Malloy? Both were boxers. But do we see LaMotta do anything similar to Malloy’s standing up against the mob? He stands up to his inner demons, maybe. But we are given no certainties in the end about the type of person that Jake LaMotta becomes. He may just revert to his old ways. That’s why I believe this film’s greatest theme is not even about the redemption or lack therof of its main character.
Let’s go back to the verse that ends the film. In this passage, Jesus has healed a blind man by performing a miracle. The religious leaders wonder whether this man had really been blind. They also accuse Jesus of a crime (working on the Sabbath) because he had performed this miracle. They ask the man whether or not he believes Jesus to be a sinner. And he says those beautiful words - “All I know is this: once I was blind and now I can see.”
Everyone else, even the disciples of Jesus, saw the blind man as a sinner. The religious leaders wouldn’t have even cared for his opinion on the matter except for the fact that he was claiming to have been the recipient of a miraculous change. When he was pressed on the matter, the man who had been blind did not talk about his own merits, he didn’t weigh his good and bad actions, he didn’t take credit.
He simply spoke the truth.
Can a person like Jake LaMotta find redemption? After seeing the brutal nature of his life, will we even allow for the possibility that he could be redeemed? I turn that analysis inward and ask the same of myself.
Can I be redeemed?
Yes, by the power of Christ, I believe I can be and I have been. And by that same power, I believe someone like Jake LaMotta can be.
Others will see vastly different meanings in this film than I do, and that’s okay. All of us bring our own experiences and beliefs into the equation when we watch I film. When I see Raging Bull, I think about my own guilt and pain and I relish in the fact that Jesus promises to take that all away so that I do not have to brutalize myself in the way LaMotta does. The movie doesn’t come out and say these things directly because no great art communicates that way. To convey these deep feelings and truths, you have to come at it from the side and let the viewer fill in the rest. That means some viewers will fill in different parts than other viewers, and that’s okay. When I see the story of Jake LaMotta, I see a brutal man who visciously hurt those around him. I also see a man consumed with guilt and self-hate. Can a person like him be redeemed? I believe so.
Once I was blind and now I can see.
NOTE ON CONTENT: There is no nudity in the film and no overt sexual content. There is one scene depicting intimacy between a couple, and a woman kisses a man’s bare chest. In the scene, she is wearing a revealing nightgown. Before any further intimacy is depicted, the man pulls away and pours cold water down his boxers. Again, no nudity is shown, but it is an intimate scene and may not be appropriate for young viewers. Most of the film’s objectionable content is due to its violence. The boxing scenes are absolutely brutal, but the scenes of domestic abuse are even worse. The rage inside of Jake LaMotta spills into every aspect of his life. There is also quite a bit of profanity. Again, this film is not for young viewers, but its themes and the conversations it can start make it worthwhile viewing for those that are mature enough to contextualize it.