Review of Raging Bull, directed by Martin Scorsese
If tragedy is the story of a noble man undone by a singular flaw, Raging Bull is no tragedy: Jake LaMotta is ignoble–obsessive, jealous, mean, petty, insecure, violent, and ungrateful. His downfall–the story of Raging Bull, based on his true-life memoir–is the simple function of what a terrible person he is, not of a tragic flaw in an otherwise admirable character. That such a film could be made and be so universally admired suggests that there is common grace enough in the world that even movie critics recognize the horror of self-destruction.
Jake LaMotta was a middleweight boxer in the 1940s and 50s. He won the title of middleweight champion in 1950 and lost it in 1951. He was arrested in 1958 for allowing an underaged girl into one of his nightclubs. He wrote a memoir in 1970. You might not think this is the stuff of which great art is made, but in the hands of a master almost any subject can serve if done right. Raging Bull was done right.
LaMotta fights in almost every scene of the movie, with his fists inside the ring and his words outside. He is at war with everyone all the time. In the opening scene he berates his first wife for overcooking his steak, and turns on his brother when he tries to make peace. Then he’s in the ring, beating somebody up. Then he’s back outside, arguing. Later he grows paranoid, convinced his second wife is cheating on him. He beats her and drives her away. LaMotta’s rage and fear serve him well in the ring because they make him the better boxer; they serve him poorly outside because they make him intolerable.
The only time he gives in to anyone, it is to throw a match to appease the Mafia in exchange for his shot at the title. Afterwards he cries like a baby, ashamed at his surrender. LaMotta always keeps fighting, never goes down.
LaMotta knows, on some level, that he is enslaved to fear and spite, and he boxes to punish himself. After beating his wife and brother, he goes to the ring and endures a horrific beating in what has to be the most brutal scene in boxing films. (Scorsese adds inhuman screeches from trains and elephants to the soundtrack to emphasize the bestiality of the fight). He stands and takes it, knowing he deserves judgment.
Much of LaMotta’s insecurity focuses on his relationship with women. Roger Ebert reads the film as a study in sexual insecurity. LaMotta idealizes Vicky when he first sees her; then grows to distrust and even hate her once they’re married (an example of the madonna-whore complex). He needs to be sure, absolutely sure, that his woman is his alone; he grows paranoid whenever she is away. Of course what he fears isn’t really about her; it is about what he thinks his relationship to her says about his manliness. If she’s cheating on him, she’s mocking him to the world, advertising that he isn’t man enough for her. That is what is truly intolerable. The world must know that Jake LaMotta is a real man.
Ebert is right, but I think you can read the film on a more general level. Sex is incidental; it is merely the thing that triggers LaMotta’s particular paranoia. All men want recognition; all men strive for esteem, for respect. LaMotta demanded respect in the form of knuckling under his balled fists and staying away from his woman. For others, it might take the form of money, success, praise, or something else. The interesting thing isn’t the particular object through which respect is conveyed, but the intensity with which it is demanded. LaMotta was a slave to his need for respect. In his enslavement, he lashed out and destroyed anything important to him–his boxing, his marriage, his brother’s love. Such is the nature of idolatry and sin.
Raging Bull is surprisingly conventional. LaMotta eventually has a crisis and realizes how lost his is. In his jail cell he despairs and cries out in anguish, one of the most painful scenes in any movie ever (and a large part of why Robert De Niro won Best Actor for this role). It is a wrenching moment, almost physically painful to watch.
In the final scene, LaMotta recites a monologue to himself in the mirror, lines which serve as an accusation and indictment of himself. There is no redemption for LaMotta, no restoration, only the knowledge that now at least he sees how much damage he wrought to himself.
Raging Bull is an emotionally mature and difficult work. Critics lavished praise on the work then and now. Though it famously did not win the Oscar for Best Picture (Steven Spielberg even made a joke about it not winning at the Oscars in 2011), it was nominated for 8 Academy Awards. It sits today as #53 of BFI’s list of the greatest movies of all time, #98 on IMDB.com, and, most impressively, #4 on AFI’s. In 1990 it was listed on the National Film Registry.
That said, Raging Bull is not an enjoyable movie. It is a character study of an unlikeable man. We can read his life as a cautionary tale and be glad for benefiting from the story, but the movie casts an oppressive atmosphere. If the movie has a fault, it is that there is no uplift, no final salvation. LaMotta grows enough to see what he’s done to himself and his loved ones, but he cannot change; he can only grow old in his pain. Perhaps that is the most daring thing about Raging Bull: it tells the truth that, left to our own, we cannot change. If there is no Savior, we are all still in the jail cell, pounding on the walls, crying in anguish “Why? Why? Why?” with no escape.