Director Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull is a masterwork of violence and its all-too human repercussions, as told through the real life story of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta. Filtered through the acclaimed director’s Catholic background, Scorsese’s biopic may seem to be a common boxing film at first glance, but its 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 stark depictions of one man’s rage-filled path of self-destruction.
That dichotomy is the key to its most powerful ruminations on atonement, as it holds nothing back in exploring the wages of sin and anger, as well as what it may truly take for some to change their deepest and darkest natures.
When we first meet boxer Jake La Motta (Robert DeNiro), it’s 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. From the very first moments, it’s 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. And 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. Onlookers attack one another, women are trampled in the chaos, and a riot threatens to engulf the ring itself. This is only the first example of how Scorsese’s boxing matches throughout Raging Bull will work as metaphors for LaMotta’s inner turmoil, and their examinations are crucial for understanding what is being said throughout the film
Everywhere he goes, Jake is a force of destruction. Dinners turn into domestic disputes, conversations tumble into physical altercations, and nights out quickly descend into madness. It’s no secret that LaMotta is simmering with anger at nearly every moment and everyone from his wives to his borther Tommy (Joe Pesci), are forced to constantly reckon with LaMotta’s rage.
But what is the source of LaMotta’s anger? 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 about to prove his own worth. LaMotta rages against those who he sees as holding him back or who don’t give him the respect that he believes he deserves. While the roots of such issues are never shown, it’s clear that LaMotta is constantly in turmoil as he simultaneously thinks the world of himself and hates himself.
While LaMotta lives with his anger boiling inside him in each moment, it’s in the ring where he is fully unleashed. From his losses to his victories, Scorsese films LaMotta’s fights with a heavily artistic lens. The rings change size to either make him a giant or a dwarf depending on his state of mind. Billowing, sulfurous smoke pours in from every side to reflect the personal hell that the Bronx Bull has created for himself. Flashing strobe lights and the sounds of wild animals punctuate the blows from both sides.
“I’ve done a lot of bad things, Joey,” remarks LaMotta at one point following an unfair loss in a match. “Maybe it’s coming back to me.” These moments of clarity are few and far between for LaMotta, especially in the first two acts of the film, but show a growing need for penance and repentance.
What makes the ideas of sin and atonement so potent within Raging Bull is that they don’t follow a simple, linear path that many other films would pursue in order to create a simple structure of destruction and redemption. Instead, the fallibility of LaMotta in Raging Bull is cyclical because the central character of the film is stuck in his destructive tendencies. By the end of its first act, it seems as though LaMotta has pushed past in-ring failure and marital strife through a series of big wins and the start of a new marriage and family, as shown through a stylish montage of still frames from fights and surprisingly colored home movie footage. But once the film returns to LaMotta’s home life, it’s clear that his anger, self-doubts, and unstoppable self-destruction are as bad as ever. They eventually become focused on his wife and brother, with domestic discord eventually exploding into outright at-home violence, which is painted as one of LaMotta’s truly unforgiveable acts.
But then again, why would LaMotta be any different than he was before? Despite his self-doubts and punishments, he’s done nothing to atone for his sins. For LaMotta, the road to redemption will be a long and painful one.
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, LaMotta is brutally punished in the ring in a fight that would be dubbed The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Scorsese chooses to heavily layer in Catholic symbolism throughout the match, with LaMotta being cleaned with a bucket of water filled with his own blood, given his mouth guard in reflection of taking the sacrament, and having his face covered in Vaseline like an anointing. The meaning is clear – this is LaMotta’s atonement for his many previous sins. Unlike a previous bout where LaMotta allowed a vastly inferior opponent to pummel him ineffectually in order throw a fight, LaMotta gives it his all against Robinson until he can give no more. In response, LaMotta allows his longtime rival to physically destroy him without so much as putting a glove up to defend himself. The result is a shocking onslaught of punches that cut him open and send his blood flying across the crowd. While LaMotta never falls down, he’s physically destroyed and soon ends his boxing career.
However, LaMotta has not truly repented of his sins despite his previous atonement.
Now massively overweight and running his own nightclub, LaMotta revels in his own excesses, drinking heavily, enjoying his own terrible attempts at being a standup comedian, and frequently cheating on his wife. It all comes crashing down when he mistakenly introduces an underage girl to other men at his club and is subsequently arrested and thrown into jail for the crime. Locked up in a dark cell, LaMotta is broken down into a weeping, raging mess of a man, slamming his fists into the hard concrete wall as he screams “I’m not an animal!” in Raging Bull’s most emotionally raw, painful scene.
This is truly LaMotta’s reckoning with his own horrible nature and the dark night of this man’s soul. In this violent confrontation with the self, LaMotta is finally able to repent of his sins and become a better person.
Following his attrition in prison, LaMotta has clearly turned into a quieter, meeker, less self-involved man. He’s lost everything, with only his pathetic little comedy act in shitty little nightclubs supporting him despite all the grandeur and success he’d found earlier in life. The final act of redemption left for LaMotta comes when he sees his estranged brother Joey. While Joey rebuffs him, all Jake wants to do is hug him and give him a kiss, enveloping him in his heavy frame. It’s a quiet, small moment, but it shows how much the former epitome of violence and anger has changed in his later years. While little of it is shown, LaMotta is now able to live a life that has moved past his former violent, sinful nature.
In its final moments, Raging Bull ends on a quiet scene of LaMotta reciting Marlon Brando’s famous “coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront as he prepares to go on stage. There’s still a little something left of LaMotta’s spirit, but it’s been quieted and humbled in the light of the many reckonings he has had with his sin. As LaMotta’s final moments are followed by three verses from The Book of John, we are left to contemplate what peace and redemption mean following so many years of roaring, destructive violence.
So, for the second time, [the Pharisees]
summoned the man who had been blind and said:
“Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.”
“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.”
John IX. 24-26
the New English Bible