Martin Scorsese's telling of the story of Jake La Motta, Raging Bull, has given rise to a number of different, often conflicting, readings. For Scorsese himself, La Motta's trajectory from promising boxer to middleweight champion of the world to night-club performer is the story of "a guy attaining something and losing everything, and then redeeming himself." Such a reading is clearly reinforced by the quotation from St. John's gospel preceding the final credits, which tells of a man whose sight has been restored by Christ rebuking the Pharisees: "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." On this level, La Motta's life becomes a kind of spiritual odyssey of the kind encountered before in the work of Schrader and Scorsese, both separately and in collaboration one with another. As Scorsese describes La Motta: "He works on an almost primitive level, almost an animal level. And therefore he must think in a different way, he must be aware of certain things spiritually that we aren't, because our minds are too cluttered with intellectual ideas, and too much emotionalism. And because he's on that animalistic level, he may be closer to pure spirit."
Others have rejected such an approach as spurious, self-justificatory, high-flown theorizing and have condemned the film as endorsing macho values. On the other hand, there are those who completely invert this argument and, like Neil Sinyard, read Raging Bull as "a militantly feminist film" in that it "presents men at their most pointlessly repulsive and destructive. The effect of the film is to aim a pulverizing blow at male values."
Such contradictory readings and responses become more comprehensible if one considers the film's extraordinary style, however, in which it is frequently very difficult to locate any kind of authorial voice or attitude. Scorsese's presence is clearly there in the film's frequently stunning visuals, but what does he want us to think of La Motta? As Richard Combs puts it in the course of a long analysis of the film in Sight and Sound, Raging Bull "seems to have been made out of an impatience with all the usual trappings of cinema, with plot, psychology and an explanatory approach to character." Conversations, though intense in the extreme, are elliptical, muffled, barely heard. There are few "period" traces, and even fewer familiar faces. In spite of the opportunity offered by the trajectory of the real La Motta's life, Scorsese largely refuses to let the film arrange itself into a conventional rise-and-fall pattern, concentrating instead on simple, often highly elliptical chronological units, with some of La Motta's fights communicated solely by a still and a title. In all of these details the film differs markedly from the boxer's autobiography on which it is loosely based and which supplies "interpretation" and background detail in large amounts. What Scorsese has done, however, is to throw out all this "excess baggage," and to reveal La Motta's interior drama by means of a rigorous concentration on externals. In this respect, Raging Bull may be his most Bressonian film, in which, as Combs puts it, "the spirit is only evident in its absence."
Several critics, notable among them Robin Wood, have read a homosexual subtext in Raging Bull (and other Scorsese films for that matter). This is at its clearest in the scenes around the Janiro fight. Janiro's good looks have attracted the attention of La Motta's wife Vickie, and La Motta is determined to ruin them, although he jokes that he doesn't know whether to "fuck him or fight him." Sexual doubts also hover over a scene in which La Motta worries that he has "girl's hands," and inform much of the film's floridly sexual language. According to Wood, traces of repressed homosexuality in Raging Bull "exist threateningly close to the surface – to the film's conscious level of articulation – accounting for its relentless and near-hysterical intensity."
In the end, it has to be admitted that Raging Bull is a profoundly ambivalent film which refuses to fit easily into Scorsese's schema or into any straightforwardly feminist analysis either. But neither is it an unproblematic celebration of machismo. One of the few critics sensitive to the film's ambivalence is Pam Cook who argues that while it does indeed put masculinity in crisis it does not, for all its profoundly disturbing qualities, offer a radical critique of either masculinity or violence: "The film's attitude to violence is ambiguous. On one hand, it is validated as an essential component of masculinity, making possible resistance to a corrupt and repressive social system. On this level violence is seen as inseparable from desire, and is celebrated. On the other, the tragic scenario of Raging Bull demands that the hero be shown to be the guilty victim of his transgressive desires: his violence is so excessive, so self-destructive that it has to be condemned.…The tragic structure of Raging Bull has consequences for its view of masculinity: masculinity is put into crisis so that we can mourn its loss." In this reading La Motta's "fall" is not the result of some kind of innate guilt or "original sin" but intimately tied up with his social position as a member of the Italian-American immigrant community, a victim-hero desperate to improve the conditions of his existence by becoming a champion boxer but limited by a culture which at one and the same time offered power and success but insisted on the inferior status of Italian immigrants. According to Cook the film thus looks back to a time when the values of the Italian-American community were still current.
Release Date: 1980
Starring: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, Mario Gallo, Frank Adonis, Joseph Bono, Frank Topham, Lori Anne Flax, Charles Scorsese, Don Dunphy, Bill Hanrahan, Rita Bennett, James V. Christy, Bernie Allen, Michael Badalucco, Thomas Beansy Lobasso, Paul Forrest, Peter Petrella, Geraldine Smith, Mardik Martin, Peter Savage, Daniel P. Conte, Joe Malanga, Allan Malamud, D. J. Blair, Laura James, Richard McMurray, Mary Albee, Candy Moore, Nick Trisko, Lou Tiano, Allan Joseph, Martin Scorsese, Floyd Anderson, Johnny Barnes, Kevin Mahon, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Louis Raftis, Coley Wallis, Fritzie Higgins, and Johnny Turner
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin
Source Citation: Petley, Julian. "Raging Bull." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 991-993.