Raging Bull — Masculinity and Tragedy

Jun 14, 2018 · 6 min read

Video essay/analysis here: youtu.be/GlCfVops9_A

Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is considered a masterpiece by many, and an enigma by others. What’s to like about a film that is a black and white tragedy with extremely unlikable characters? Too many people go into this movie thinking they’re going to get something different. We have all the Rocky comparisons to thank for that.

While Rocky has its merits as a great underdog story, Raging Bull is more oriented at exploring the darker elements of masculinity and human psychology. I think one of the reasons why Raging Bull is so celebrated is because it’s one of the most honest portrayals of what it means to be a man, ever committed to film. I’ll try to explain Martin Scorsese’s postmodern cinematic style and how he used it to capture a perfect depiction of a savage.

Jake Lamotta is portrayed by Robert De Niro as a primitive beast. His self-destructive violence, abusive language, and aggressive antics paint him as a rabid animal. The decline and fall of Jake La Motta, provides a pretext for the playing out of a number of anxieties about the irrecoverability of the past.. His collapse into impotence plays out a scenario which evokes profound loss: loss of a great classic cinema, of community values, of family life, of a sense of individuality. A tragic scenario in which the hero’s suffering teaches us something about our own life, and how to accept its terms. One of the reasons why De Niro’s performance is so compelling is because of Lamotta’s short temper; we never know when he’s going to explode in a fit of rage.

Lamotta’s violence is a direct result of his insecurity. The constant need to prove himself to others impedes on the quality of his life on a daily basis. It’s interesting that feminist film critics have pointed out that they think Raging Bull is an explicit statement of a radical critique of masculinity and the inherent violence that surrounds it. I disagree, because I think that the film’s stance on violence is ambiguous. At the very least, I could agree that in a sense, Raging Bull puts masculinity on trial by putting it under the microscope to look for any flaws it may have. What would our society look like if everyone behaved Jake Lamotta did? Perhaps not so good, but if the film were merely a story about the average man, it wouldn’t be nearly as captivating. The reason why the film isn’t picking a side when it comes to feminism’s objection to masculinity is because it is simply a portrait of a horrible person, solely for the means of inner exploration. It’s honest enough to say: this is what bad men are like, but it’s not saying “all or most men are like this”. Jake Lamotta is so bad that he alienates even other hyper-masculine figures throughout the movie. Joey Lamotta, who isn’t exactly a paragon of moral values, rejects Jake for his nature. In the fight with Janiro, he purposely does extra, serious damage to his opponents face because his wife finds him attractive. Frank Vincent’s character screws up by just talking to her. Nobody is safe around this guy.

In one of the best-edited scenes in cinema history, Lamotta atones for his sins the only way he knows how: through sacrificial violence. Scorsese’s religious imagery is apparent when Jake lays back on the ropes, similar to Christ’s crucifixion. While estranged from his family due to his violent actions, Lamotta loses the title fight to Sugar Ray Robinson. Letting us know that he hasn’t hit rock bottom, Jake reminds his opponent “You never got me down, Ray.”

A big theme in Raging Bull is the perception of self, and how it diverges from how others see you. This is ultimately made clear in the final scene when De Niro performs the famous “On the Waterfront” Marlon Brando monologue. After gaining 60 lbs and becoming a hack comedian, Jake Lamotta never redeems himself in the eyes of the audience, but he redeems himself in his own view. The unfortunate downfall of his inflated, egotistical legacy, is almost not apparent to himself, because he views himself as a victim, just like he always has. He sees himself as a tortured man, a classic victim complex. Instead of taking actions for his responsibility for his erratic behavior, he defends and justifies them. Even when he gets arrested, he pounds the jail cell in some of the best acting I’ve ever seen, screaming “WHY, WHY, WHY?”. Maybe because you introduced under-age girls to sleazeballs in your club, you fucking pervery. Why?
This is a strong display of the cynicism that is only capable of those with the highest amount of arrogance. This is the story of a man who refuses to feel guilt, regardless of the circumstances.

How do we as an audience even attempt to connect with such an utter pile of shit for a main character? To tell the truth, it’s difficult for a lot of people. Initial reception was very polarizing and it took until the 1990s before it was truly recognized for its greatness. Variety’s original review in 1980 called Jake Lamotta one of the most repugnant and unlikeable screen protagonists in some time.

If we can’t connect with him through sympathy or empathy, I think we can use Jake Lamotta as a cautionary tale. I think that all of us are capable of malevolence, and most of us should be thankful that our instinctual drives since birth have not led us on the toxic and disastrous path that he was on. And if perhaps our nature is more the result of the actions we choose, we should credit ourselves. Raging Bull is a prime example of unchecked jealousy and how it can lead to our own failings. Lamotta may be irredeemably flawed, and Raging Bull’s honesty about human disposition makes it distinctive, especially when compared to other films of its time.

Lamotta’s brother Joey Lamotta, played by Joe Pesci, is another great performance. Joey is also not perfect or moral, but in a sense he is the abel to Jake’s Cain. He is the one looking out for Jake, but even he is not safe from the lashing out of his brother. Through this relationship it is revealed that Jake WANTS to be punished for his misdeeds. He latches on to simple throwaway phases that Joey makes and takes them out of context just to victimize his brother. Jake constantly conjures up imaginary lovers he has to compete against for the affection of his own wife. When he begins to suspect his own brother, that’s when all hell breaks loose. The famous scene between the two at the beginning of the film has Jake telling Joey “hit me”. By the end of film and after his fall from grace, he tells Joey “kiss me”. The expression of such strong emotions in this film leave me exhausted, but in a good way.

Raging Bull is a brilliant showcase of acting, a springboard for discussion about pathology, an example of virtuoso filmmaking, all rolled into an operatic tragedy. It may not be the experience for those looking for sheer escapism, however those willing to peer into the conflicts of the human condition can be enlightened by observing such a menacing figure. It’s important to note that Scorsese only decided to do this movie after almost losing his life in a drug-overdose. By his own account, doing the film saved his life. Maybe he found solace in the story of the disturbed man who was only respected in the ring, and perhaps you can too. Raging Bull is simply one of the most enthralling character studies ever attempted.

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