In an unusual twist for me, I had both seen Raging Bull prior to watching it for this project, and I love the work. Martin Scorsese is a very basic director to love as much as I do, but can’t help it, I think he’s a genius. This is a boxing movie and a gangster movie — it gracefully borrows characters and plot techniques from both genres. Scorsese zeros in on the psychological nature of Jake LaMotta, an actual middleweight champion played with Robert De Niro’s usual comprehensive balance of sympathetic realism. Scorsese sacrifices the familiar sentimental tropes of a heroic athlete accomplishing a seemingly impossible goal, as Rocky had done four years earlier, opting instead to use the boxer as a hologram of our own projected hopes and dreams.
What I mean is that Scorsese embeds his eye within the body of this hollow golden calf that we would normally rally around as a society, allowing us to understand the physical and mental toll of an individual groomed and rewarded in direct proportion to his ruthlessness — both in relation to himself and those who dare to pursue emotional closeness to him.
In Raging Bull, as in most Scorsese works, there is a specter of Catholicism. In the most intimate scenes of family, kitchen, and bedrooms, there are symbols of Catholic devotion, most notably crucifixes and portraits of Jesus or the Virgin Mary on walls around the family homes. All of this set dressing adds depth and color to the psyche of Jake LaMotta. This, coupled with the fact that the summer dance where LaMotta first has an opportunity to narrow his proximity to Vickie was hosted by the church binds his identity with the salvation promised by the bible. This scene, which bounces between men fighting in the wings, men lusting after teenagers, and men interacting with a priest and asking each other “Did you put money in the basket this week?”, demonstrates the inextricability of violence, sex, fate, and religion in the lives of these characters. Many of the story blocks are biblical in nature — suspicion of a brother’s loyalty, flagellation of the flesh as atonement for sin (“I’ve done a lot of bad things, maybe it’s coming back to me.”), and a flattening of female existence to one of two extremes, a Madonna mother who kisses his boo boo’s all better, or a sexual vixen able to ensnare any man in her insatiable web of sexuality.
For Jake, this is most evident in his relationship with Vickie (Catherine Moriarty). He pursues her in spite of her age, and the presumption that she is wanted by the few men in the neighborhood whom he considers his equal. Once he attains her, and ditches his first wife, La Motta is suspicious and paranoid, although each of these adjectives does not adequately describe the veracity of how strongly jealousy influences his actions.
She is perfect until she dares to accept his imperfection, which taints her forever in his eyes. If she’s willing to have sex with a low life like him, how could she resist the charms of men who control Jake’s own fate? This quandary presents LaMotta with the opposite outcome his brother describes (“If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win.”) because if a woman he stakes a claim on betrays him, he’s foolish, and if she’s loyal, what good is her commitment if she’s willing to settle for someone as inferior as him?
LaMotta is abusive and possessive. He is also abused and possessed by the gangster who helped catapult his career. He throws a fight at their bequest to ensure a chance at the title, while actively thwarting any attempt at discretion regarding his motives. The men who profit off of him own his body and his fate. Jake is their property as much as Vickie is his — when Tommy sends him a drink from across the bar he expects, and demands, that Jake come over for a conversation because he’s purchased his time. When Vickie kisses Tommy goodbye at the end of the evening, LaMotta smacks her around for daring to validate his possessor’s claim to his own property. This film, like many other Scorsese works, is about social hierarchy and how individuals assert themselves and navigate those structures. Vickie and Joe effortlessly understand these dynamics, and how to use them to catapult their own stature, a deftness that triggers Jake’s insecurity, pushing him to establish a physical dominance over both of them.
Jake is someone who understands the body — he eats obsessively gaining weight when he isn’t close to weigh in, relying instead on his mental demons to push him out of his stupor. These demons are sourced by the paranoia underpinning this distrust in the loyalty of Vickie and his brother Joe.
The blending of violence and serenity is reflected in many characters throughout the film, but most of all by Jake himself who seems incapable of discerning between his friends and foes. There’s a dissociation between emotional and physical pain.
For LaMotta, emotions are inextricable from his topical sensations, whether they are formed out of the ecstasy of sex or the debasement of succumbing to a broken face, while banking enough energy and motivation to retaliate. The fight scenes and montages are where Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker really shine. The sound editing accompanies the quick disorienting cuts and angle of the camera, speeding and slowing to accentuate the action, as the blows land and the cameras of the press hiss and crash.
The body transcends all the themes of this film, and Scorsese takes special care to accentuate aspects of the body in each of the most profound moments: Vickie’s leg splashing in the public pool, Joe crushing Salvy in the cab door in defense of his brother, or Jake’s own blood permeating the water used to wash him clean of the trespasses.
There have been criticisms of this film that the audience is never really permitted to know Jake La Motta, and that there is too much of a distance between the lead character and his mental capacity. I disagree, and think that we come to understand Jake exactly as he exists, within the body. His emotional depth is shallow and he channels those experiences into a physical expression.
Scorsese understands that the most authentic relationship we as a viewer can have with an athlete is one decoupled from our investment in his victory, to see him as the mechanical beast that won him the loyalty he’s so distrustful of from his brother and wife. LaMotta’s downward spiral into obesity and a life on stage further prove the fallibility of the unstoppable raging bull.
He is so distant from himself, and so addicted to the dubious emotional validation of fans and spectators, that he must pivot from a body-centric pursuit of adoration, to a body-agnostic embodiment of personalities created by men more well rounded than himself. When the film ends with the former great chasing his brother down, begging to kiss and make up, it is tragic and embarrassing. He’s a shell of a human, recognizable for the feats his body accomplished, but unforgivable for the soul resonating beneath the core.
He looks into the camera and recites the speech from On the Waterfront to his own reflection and the disassociation between his corporeal existence and the lost mind taking up residence in this core. Some have claimed this is refactored redemption for Jake, but I view this moment as an assertion by Scorsese that protagonists do not require change to justify a plot. Jake is as empty as he always was, willing to chalk up his own shortcomings to the inadequacies of those closest to him.
What we learn in this final moment before the (overwrought?) bible verse appears in text is the final example of how Jake must be extrinsically motivated — by Jesus or jealousy or Elia Kazan. He is comfortable in the role of the victim as Terry Malloy was, because it is familiar, just as he is comfortable residing on the cross in the ring, absorbing blow after blow. The way I interpret the biblical story is that like the man in the story who has vision restored by Jesus, Jake can only understand his existence and those around him through the lens of Christianity, and for Jake that means brothers are Cains and all women are Eves. Jake sees with this assistance and is therefore blind to the truth of his lonely self sabotaged existence.