Raging Bull: Scorsese’s Attempt At Kamikaze Filmmaking

After a string of independent films that helped define 1970s cinema, American auteur Martin Scorsese had succumbed to both the criticism of a few minor flops and his own drug habit. Still in his 30s, he had planned to retire simply to save his own life—until close friend and frequent collaborator Robert DeNiro convinced the director to make one more film: DeNiro’s own passion project, the true story of 1940s middleweight boxing champion Jake “The Bronx Bull” LaMotta. Convinced that the story mirrored his own need for personal redemption, Scorsese reluctantly agreed, and proceeded to create one of the most meticulously detailed film epics of American history, 1980’s Raging Bull. More than a comeback, the film catapulted Scorsese back on track to becoming one of the film medium’s most respected and masterful creators. But steeped in symbolism, obscure film techniques, and a host of admittedly unlikeable characters—played to perfection by DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Cathy Moriarty—Raging Bull has remained a challenging experience to viewers of all generations. Decades later, modern YouTube commentators reassess what critics have called Scorsese’s “magnum opus”—and his most lasting statement on visual storytelling. As the YouTuber A Matter of Film explained, the film begins its symbolic journey of Jake LaMotta’s path to self-destruction and eventual redemption at the very start, thanks to Scorsese’s masterful visuals during the famous opening title sequence:

The opening credits of the film are so brilliant because they tell you everything you need to know about Jake LaMotta: the shadow-boxing is the ultimate performance of masculinity, showing his strength and rage; the ring almost looks like a cage, making Jake look like a wild beast; there’s no one around [so], he’s fighting his toughest opponent—himself.

This observation was shared by fellow YouTuber Matt Draper, who also attributed the opening titles as a signal that the film to follow will be one of visual symbolism and operatic, humanistic themes. He remarked:

After its iconic, smoke-filled, operatic opening, we first meet boxer Jake LaMotta in the midst of a punishing and ugly bout that sees the boxer lose his first ever fight due to his opponent being saved by the bell. It’s immediately clear that Jake is a man consumed by anger, as shown by his unflinching willingness to take punch after punch directly to the face, just to lay out his opponent with devastating haymakers … The boxing ring itself, as well as the crowd surrounding it, are direct reflections of his rage, with the audience erupting into mayhem both during and after the fight.

CinemaWizardBoy added that from the first few scenes, Raging Bull defies expectations; while viewers may be looking for a simple, “underdog” story of redemption, Scorsese’s LaMotta biopic is a much more-opaque study of a deliberately unlikable figure. The YouTuber stated:

Too many people go into this movie thinking that they’re going to get something different. We have all the Rocky comparisons to thank for that. But while Rocky has its merits as a great underdog story, Raging Bull is much more oriented at exploring the darker elements of masculinity in human psychology. I think one of the reasons Raging Bull is so celebrated is because it’s one of the most honest portrayals of what it means to be a man ever committed to film.

What was unanimous among critics and filmgoers upon Raging Bull’s 1980 theatrical release was leading man Robert DeNiro’s virtual transformation to the lean and mean middleweight champion and his equally convinced weight-gain of over 60 pounds in order to portray LaMotta in his later years. So brooding and believe was DeNiro’s performance, that he was granted his first Oscar; on this, the YouTuber stated:

Jack LaMotta is portrayed by Robert DeNiro as a primitive beast. His self-destructive violence, abusive language, and aggressive antics paint him rabid animal. The decline and fall of Jake LaMotta provide a pretext for the playing-out of a number of anxieties about the irrecoverability of the past.

CinemaWizardBoy continued by commenting that the greatest strength in DeNiro’s performance was his willingness to eschew dialogue in exchange for facial expression and body movement—much like his own idol, Marlon Brando. The YouTuber added:

A tragic scenario in which the hero’s suffering tells us something about our life, and how to accept its terms … One of the reasons why DeNiro’s performance is so compelling is because of LaMotta’s short temper: we never know when he’s going to explode in a fit of rage. LaMotta’s violence is a direct result of his insecurity—the constant need to prove himself to others impedes on the quality of his life on a daily basis.

To many, it was this very expression of anger below the character’s surface that was so successfully represented in Raging Bull—both by DeNiro’s performance, and Martin Scorsese’s keen knowledge of conveying emotion though the use of cinematography, editing, and the film’s memorable musical score. Matt Draper commented on that combination of film elements, stating:

But what is the cause of LaMotta’s anger? Scorsese himself has said that keeping the source of such anger out of the picture was crucial … While it’s never made entirely clear—and the film is all the better for it—much of the character’s rage comes from deep self-doubts and the worry that he’ll never be able to prove his own worth.

On the crucial subject of Scorsese’s use of multiple techniques within the epic story, commentator A Matter of Film observed:

While it may not be the most re-watchable work in Martin Scorsese’s filmography, the black and white film about a man’s capacity to self-destruct acted as one of the filmmaker’s most important statements of what film can ultimately aspire to. Raging Bull is not a boxing movie; it’s a film about a man’s inability to cope with his jealousy and his anger, completely blinded by his sexual insecurities … The ring is his confession room, [and] the punches he receives are his punishment.

The YouTuber Matt Draper stated that Martin Scorsese’s perfect use of the boxing imagery itself was a style decision that successfully broke away from the conventions of sports films, using the brutal blood sport more as an allegory for the lead character’s private turmoil and self-destructive nature. He observed:

From his losses to his victories, Scorsese films the modest fights with a heavily metaphorical approach. Boxing rings change size, either making [Jake] a giant in times he feels triumphant and in charge, or dwarf him when he is being completely outmatched brutalized … Billowing sulfur smoke pours in from every side to reflect the personal hell that ‘the Bronx Bull’ has created for himself …

YouTuber Tyler Mowery concurred, adding that the film’s greatest achievement is the way that director Scorsese melded the fight scenes with both the rare depictions of LaMotta’s marital bliss—and the ultimate tumultuous relationship into which his marriage to Vikki de-evolves. Mowery observed:

I think the real brilliance of this film’s editing takes place outside of the boxing ring. One of the most memorable and important aspects of the editing was the juxtaposition between scenes … This shows the connection between LaMotta in and out of the ring.

To be sure, the greatest visual cue in indicating Jake’s inner anger and self-loathing usually revolves around his inconsolable jealously regarding his wife. Many of the film’s most powerful scenes depict domestic violence, juxtaposed with those brutal bashings Jake doles out to his opponents in the ring; Scorsese leaves it to the viewer to interpret the meaning of masculinity within the film’s core. A Matter of Film commented:

Jake is so insecure about his own masculinity that he wants a woman to sleep with him but, if she does, he cannot respect because in his mind, she would probably rather sleep with anyone else. Once [Jake and Vikki] marry, he becomes convinced that she has been unfaithful. Through point-of-view shots in slow motion, Scorsese is able to transmit [Jake’s] jealousy.

On this theme, Scorsese is cautious never to justify or worse, to glorify, such behavior. In fact, Raging Bull distinctly demonstrators to audiences the long-term repercussions suffered by Jake for his own violent behavior toward those he portends to love—making the film a unique study of the real-life Jake LaMotta. A Matter of Film concluded:

If the film were merely a story about the average man, it wouldn’t be nearly as captivating. The reason why the film isn’t picking a side when it comes to feminism’s objection to masculinity is because it’s simply a portrait of a horrible person—solely for the means of inner exploration. It’s honest enough to say, ‘This is what bad men are like,’ but it’s not saying all or most men are like this. Jack LaMotta is so bad that he even alienates other hyper-masculine figures throughout the movie.

As Martin Scorsese is distinctly a New York Italian-American filmmaker brought up in a strict Catholic household, his films have often integrated those religious themes into both their storylines and visual motifs. In that regard, Raging Bull is no different, and offered the masterful director ample opportunity to portray Jake as a martyr figure. YouTuber Matt Draper commented:

Filtered through the acclaimed director’s Catholic background, Scorsese’s biopic is more than a common boxing film; it’s true purpose is as a meditation on the destructive nature of anger and what it truly means to atone for one’s sins. It’s a film that is as beautiful in its cinematic explorations of its themes as it is repulsive in its dark depictions of one man’s rage-filled path to destruction.

On that theme, Draper added that the cinematography and editing perfectly fit Scorsese’s religious overtones, adding:

The first stage of atonement for LaMotta’s sins comes in the form of physical punishment in his final, most brutal battle with boxing rival Sugar Ray Robinson … Scorsese chooses to heavily layer in Catholic symbolism throughout the match…

Although Raging Bull can be a difficult film for casual viewing, its many layers of symbolism intermingled with Martin Scorsese’s then-maturing use of gritty realism has helped make that particular film one of his widely-praised, and open to multiple interpretations. As YouTuber Tyler Mowery summed it up, as a sports film, Raging Bull delivers visually; as a humanistic drama, it succeeds on all levels. He concluded:

Scorsese was on a mission to give everything he could to make this film great and the cinematography and editing reflect this dedication … What I find interesting about [the boxing scenes] is that the fights communicate a different feeling depending upon where we are in the story, and whether or not Jake is winning.