“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” – Martin Scorsese
The greatest boxing film to have ever been made is, actually, not even about boxing at all. Raging Bull is often cited as Martin Scorsese’s comeback film, the manifestation of his artistic genius after the poor reception of New York, New York in 1977 and nearly dying of a cocaine overdose. Although 40 years have passed since it was first released, does Raging Bull still have something important to say?
“It’s not a comeback movie. I’ve been here all the time, waiting for Godot,” Scorsese clarified in a 1981 interview when he was asked about the impact of his masterpiece, a legacy which he couldn’t have fathomed at the time. After all, it was a film that he never wanted to make in the first place. The American auteur was not a sports fan growing up and considered boxing to be “boring”, claiming that a cinematic adaptation of Jake LaMotta’s memoir would not work since it would just end up being a repetition of the countless films about boxing, women and the mob. It was Robert De Niro who convinced the producers and pushed for the project, paving the way for Scorsese’s eventual realisation that making Raging Bull could save both his career and his life. In later interviews, the director maintained that the film is primarily focused on the process of boxing and all its philosophical implications. He said that the boxing ring is:
“An allegory for whatever you do in life. You make movies, you’re in the ring each time.”
To his enormous credit, he did manage to transform the boxing ring into a psychological arena with an ethereal quality to it. From the opening sequence itself, we see De Niro dancing through his warm-up routine in slow motion to the beautiful soundtrack while everything outside the ring is shrouded in ambiguity. The title appears in bold red, a cinematic semaphore signalling the deliberate use of black-and-white. Of course, the primary reasons were to mask the inaccurately coloured boxing gloves and to distinguish Raging Bull from the rest of the films of that time. Still, the black-and-white visuals went on to complement Scorsese’s artistic statement quite well. De Niro’s fantastic portrayal of the problematic protagonist, Jake LaMotta, has remained the finest performance of his extensive career, an Oscar-winning rendition of the world middleweight boxing champion who could not conquer his own insecurities.
Unlike most famous works of the genre like Rocky (1976), Raging Bull does not pretend to know or even care about the act of boxing itself. It does not ask us to invest our attention in boxing strategies or athletic training in order to make us root for Jake, and that is precisely why it is a reflection on the inclination of such films towards the spectacle. The violence on screen is visceral and curated, edited by Scorsese’s frequent collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker in such a way that it subverts any possibility of catharsis: fragmented and unflattering. In the middle of a fight, the raucous crowd is suddenly silenced by the brilliant editing which manages to condense time and magnify the mental states of the fighters at the same time. Looking back on it, it should surprise nobody that Schoonmaker won the Academy Award for her work on Raging Bull.
Pauline Kael claimed that there was no subtext in the visually appealing fighting sequences, but it seems like she was unwilling to look beyond the broken noses and the fountains of blood and sweat because that’s where Scorsese does most of his talking, asking profound questions about the nature of faith and the sadomasochistic ceremony of boxing. Kael wrote, “By removing the specifics or blurring them, Scorsese doesn’t produce universal—he produces banality.” To me, Raging Bull does the exact opposite of what Kael hastily suggests it does. It transcends the banal details of the genre and concerns itself only with the human condition, profoundly flawed and permanently damaged but stubbornly maintaining the possibility of redemption. In Jake’s case, Scorsese never sheds light on whether he does manage to attain it. His boxing career never manages to impress the viewer due to his reprehensible behaviour outside the ring. He kisses underage girls, beats his wife (played by Cathy Moriarty) and lashes out at people when his insecurities take hold of him. From one unhappy marriage to the next, Jake successfully sabotages almost all personal relationships and drives his wife and brother (played by Joe Pesci) away.
Raging Bull is not a chronicle of the glorious rise of a champion; it is a poetic interpretation of a man’s tragic descent into the depths of his own depravity. The film does not dwell on the victories; it immediately cuts to scenes of domestic disturbances and ruminates on the fragile masculinity of a veteran fighter. Scorsese does a wonderful job at recreating New York from the ’40s, complete with the casual homophobia and the rampant sexism which further enhance the unsympathetic case-study of Jake LaMotta. It does not stop when the title belt is lifted, focusing its investigations on what comes next instead. Jake lets himself go (De Niro had to gain around 60 pounds for this) and becomes a different kind of performer, taking to the stage as a comedian and learning to laugh at his own mistakes. However, his luxurious lifestyle comes crashing down when he is dragged into prison by officers. He beats his head against the wall and keeps punching it, but this is one opponent he cannot hurt. Belly hanging out and head hanging down, the person in the frame is no longer a champion.
The ending sequence of Raging Bull has become iconic because of De Niro’s nuanced impression of Marlon Brando’s famous speech from On The Waterfront, a chilling and sad confession of a man who delivers his lines with conviction to his own reflection. Even though he has lost almost everything and everyone, Jake still warms up for his comedy routine by throwing a few punches. Some things never change.