Raging Bull is based on the life of Jake LaMotta, who emerged out of the Bronx slums Bronx to become middleweight champion in the l940s. After making and squandering millions of dollars, he became a pathetic stand-up comic, and finally spent time in a prison for corrupting the morals of an underage girl.
The real-life LaMotta was closely involved with the production in all its phases. Scorsese’s attracttion to the story is based on his fascination with lives of tortured, violent, guilt-ridden characters. The previous collaboration of Scorsese and writers Paul Schrader and actor Robert De Niro was Taxi Driver, the director’s second masterpiece (the first was Mean Streets).
Scripter Paul Schrader once observed that it’s impossible to explain the mysterious enigma that the real-life prizefighter LaMotta was–and still is. He said: I dont believe that you can ever really explain or understand an individual psyche. One of the wonderful things that art does is to give audiences enough clues to come to their own conclusion.
Unlike those earlier movies, Raging Bull deliberately intends to strip away everything about the raw surges of guilt, jealousy, and rage coursing through LaMotta’s limited imagination. LaMotta is portrayed as a punk kid, stubborn, strong, and narrow. He gets involved in boxing and he is good at it. He gets married, but his wife seems almost an afterthought. Then one day he sees a teernage girl named Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) at a municipal swimming pool and becomes immediately transfixed by her.
As written and played by Moriarty, Vickie is an intriguing character, combining teen-ager, the self-reliance of a survivor, and the calculations of a slut. He wins and married her, but then becomes consumed by the conviction that she is cheating on him.
Scorsese finds a way to visualize his jealousy: from LaMotta’s POV, Vickie sometimes floats in slow motion toward another man. This technique fixes the moment in our minds; we share LaMotta’s exaggeration of an innocent event, and we share his character’s limited and tragic hang-ups. He is an engine driven by his own rage.
The equation between La Mottas prizefighting and his sexuality is inescapable, and we see the trap he’s in: La Motta is the victim of base needs and instincts that, in his case, are not accompanied by the insights and maturity necessary for him to cope with them.
A movie about intense feeling, Raging Bull deals with LaMotta’s brute force, anger, grief, and guilt. Like other Scorsese’s films, Raging Bull describes a man who’s unable to understand a woman except in terms of the only two roles he knows how to assign her: virgin or whore. There is no room inside the mind of the prizefighter for the notion that a woman might be a friend or a partner. She only functions as accessible or inaccessible sexual fantasy.
However, after LaMotta has possessed Vikki, she becomes tarnished by the very sexual act. Insecure in his own manhood, he becomes obsessed by jealousy, and releases his jealousy in erratic and scary bursts of violence.
Raging Bull equates sexuality and violence. It is a vicious circle. Freud called it the “Madonna-whore complex.” The man has such low self-esteem that he cannot respect a woman who would sleep with him, and is convinced that, given the choice, she would rather be sleeping with another man.
Scorsese shows the evolution and deterioration of LaMotta’s feelings about himself and his surrounding world through dialogue that is mostly limited to expressions of desire, fear, hatred, and jealousy. These limitations, with walls separating LaMotta’s character from the world of ordinary emotions, tells us what we need to know, especially when they’re reflected back at him by his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and his wife Vickie.
Scorsese’s first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), starred Harvey Keitel as a kid from Little Italy who fell in love with a girl but could not handle the facts of her previous sexual experience. In the follow-up, Mean Streets (1973), the same hang-up was explored. In Taxi Driver (1976), the Madonna-whore complex tortured him in sick relationships with an inaccessible, icy blonde and with a young prostitute.
De Niro, who learned how to box, worked with LaMotta for a whole year, from April 1978 to April 1979, after which he became good enough to have ranked in the top twenty present-day world middleweight contenders. De Niro also talked with LaMotta’s real wife, Vickie.
The fight scenes, filmed on location in the L.A. Auditorium, were all storyboarded and choreographed beforehand. LaMotta was present to provide technical assistance. When shooting moved to New York, authenticity was maintained with the use of real locales.
The production was halted for several months to allow De Niro to gain 55 pounds for the scenes that depict LaMotta after his retirement. De Niro won a well deserved Best Actor Oscar for his fierceless performance.
Not much has been written about the film’s strategy and ambiguous tone, the fact that the (anti)hero is presented with both detachment and sympathy. Our attitudes toward him vary from scene to scene, due to the film’s richly texture, which encourages different interpretations.
This kind of ambiguity, which generates contrasting reactions, prevails up to the last scene, which also lacks clear closure (at least by standards of Hollywood movies).