On the surface, Raging Bull seems like a movie about boxing. But a closer look at it reveals that it is, instead, a story of a man dealing with intense jealousy and sexual anxiety. For him, being beaten up in the ring is his way of confessing and finding absolution. The fact that personal turmoil is the subject matter of the film is visible in the realization that the screenplay seldom sheds light on Jake’s fighting strategy. The story is, instead, driven by Jake’s extreme jealousy towards his wife Vickie and his dread of sexuality. A scene that is especially essential in conveying this subject is where Jake becomes enraged after Vickie provocatively calls one of his opponents as handsome. The comment leads to Jake thoroughly gaining the man, destroying his face in the process. A mafia boss comments in the audience to one of his deputies that the beaten-up man is not looking good anymore (Scorsese). After gaining the guy, Jake looks at his wife in the audience to make sure she got the message. There are scenes where Jake does not fight back but instead lets his arms hang on his sides as his opponents deliver their blows, a testament that there is much more going on with him than just boxing.
- Narrative -the film takes a documentary-style approach and an explicit loom to the sport of boxing. There is the use of Black and White newsreel footage to give credence to the film that it has its basis on real-life events. The film opens with an old Jake La Motta about to give a performance at the Barbizon Plaza Theatre. The rest of the movie is a flashback to his previous life as a boxer, trying to explain his opening monolog in the dressing room of the theater. The flashback serves to bring the audience to where Jake is, a moment where the film began.
- Acting- It is arguably the best piece of acting that Robert De Niro has ever produced. He performs the boxing sequences with excellent skills and believability. The character of Jake La Motta undergoes various changes over the course of the film, a period spanning 23 years. He moves from having two failed marriages to his young life as a boxer to his deterioration to a nightclub proprietor in Miami, Florida, and a lackluster comedian (Scorsese). Robert De Niro handles all these parts extraordinarily. Jake’s brother, Joey, also gives a performance that is especially noteworthy. His presence is scary, and his temperament is extremely violent.
- Cinematography- the film’s director of photography, Michael Chapman, applies black-and-white cinematography in recording the movie. There is also the use of subjective camera angles with a combination of techniques such as 360-degree pans, slow motions, and tilted camera angles. The lighting used is especially harsh to capture the viciousness aptly occurring inside the ring. The boxing scenes are particularly ruthless, where blood and sweat spurt out from the boxing ring, and the shattering punches land on the faces of the opponents in the most gruesome manner. The fight sequence of the duel between La Motta and Robinson is intriguing. The subjective angles used in capturing the moment draw the viewer into the narrative, heightening his/her sensations and reaction.
- Editing- Throughout Raging Bull, the editing is reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage. As opposed to the maintenance of the narrative and continuity of space amid the shots, the way Americans do their editing, Raging Bull seems to be a construction of a series of incongruent images. Such type of editing, in essence, creates a sequence that is more shocking than fluid. An example of the cut is from the scene between Jake and Vickie in their bedroom to the match between La Motta and Jairo. Jake asks Vickie about her comment that Jairo was good looking. It is a silent and slow-paced scene where there is no use of any music or ambient sounds. Nevertheless, the audiences’ awareness of Jake’s tendency for violence infuses the moment with tension and potent anger. The use of low-key lighting, which results in heavy shadows being cast on their faces, enhances the mood. The scene is followed by an extreme close-up of a fighter, whom we can presume to be Jairo, being hit on his face. There is no attempt to bridge these to scenes that were particularly jarring. We instead move from a scene that is still but potent with violence to a scene where violence is ubiquitous.
- Art Direction and Design- Most of the locations in the film are dark and brooding to communicate the intense emotions of the movie. Some of the boxing sequences have artificial smoke for visual effects. The faces of the boxers during and after the bouts look grotesquely bruised. During most of the fights, we see blood and sweat spewing out of the ring, which adds to the ferocity of the bouts.
One of the signature styles of Martin Scorsese present in the film is that he frequently uses slow-motion and freeze-frames. Most of his films are set in New York City. His movies also happen to be bluntly graphic and replete with violence. These facts are seen in the film Raging Bull. An instance where we see the freeze-frame is at the beginning of the film, where we observe the old Jake in a dressing room that occurs in one long take, which is then cut to a close-up of his broken nose. From here, we see the freeze-frame of Jake La Motta during the year 1941. We also experience slow motion in the scene where there is a dance organized by St. Clare Church; there are slow-motion point-of-view shots of Vickie and those of Vickie and Salvy as La Motta looks at them. There is also a slow-motion shot of the two where La Motta trails them from the location of the dance to watch them leave in the car Salvy came in. The film is also highly violent as in most of the scenes we see bloody and bruised faces of the boxers as heavy punches land on their faces.
The film is one of the most disturbing and distressing depictions of jealousy I have ever seen. I liked the fact that it adequately tackled the themes of fear, sexual inadequacies, and low self-esteem that plague most men that choose to be violent towards women. I liked that it went beyond the surface matter that was boxing and tackled the psychological and personal motivations of Jake.
Raging Bull. Directed by Martin Scorsese, performance by Robert De Niro, United Artists, 1980. DVD.