‘One sure thing was that it wouldn’t be a film about boxing. We didn’t know a thing about it and it didn’t interest us at all!’ M. Scorsese
Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Italian Masculinity, and the American Dream
By. Christina Marie Newland
From Film Matters 41 Spring 2013
From the slums of New York to the champion of the world; the depiction of boxer Jake La Motta, the ‘Bronx Bull’ (played by Robert de Niro) in Raging Bull (Scorsese 1980) is an uncompromising rag to riches story of an ‘animalistic brute’ (Newland 2013) pursuing the American dream. La Motta’s journey from humble urban roots to the heights of the middle-class idyll, complete with a young wife, two children and a large suburban home, appears at first to be one of success. However, if this illusion was ever suggested, contentment is never achieved, as La Motta’s recurring violent behaviour destroys everything in his life to the extent that he even takes a hammer to his championship belt to remove the jewels in order to pawn them. Even in the films opening scene Scorsese shows our protagonist in full destructive and brutish mode, a scene of which involves a steak, accompanied with some particularly foul language and a peppering of domestic abuse.
As Newland suggests there is a social-economic catalyst for La Motta’s failure. His drive for winning and achieving his champion status leads to the failure of achieving the American dream. In terms of La Motta’s sporting ambitions, the road to success is a barbaric one but as Scorsese’s quote (above) indicates there is a lot more to the film than title fights and sporting glory.
Many of the film’s themes are played out in the boxing ring, during wonderful, atmospheric sequences. The ring becomes deeply symbolic and it can be seen as an allegory for whatever you do in life – an almost ‘microcosm for the brutality of society’ (Newland 2013). It becomes a theatre for La Motta’s wild behaviour where the audience witness’s exceedingly violent encounters – as each competitor exchange heavy blows, blood and sweat splash across the canvas, even at times spraying onto the spectators. However, the majority of the violence in the film frequently occurs outside the ring, particularly in the parameters of Jake’s domestic life. The boxing fights are staged spectacles yet the violence of the mafia-run slum neighbourhoods are a part of Jake’s existence and echo the struggles of the Catholic Italian American and the crisis of their masculine identify; a crisis of which is often explored in Scorsese’s films.
Robin Wood asserts a more psychoanalytical approach to explain Jake’s violent outbursts. He proposes that through repressed homosexual feelings towards Tony Janiro (a good-looking boxer, as his wife Vicky observes), mafia boss Tommy Como and his brother Joey, violence frequently occurs, with Vicky usually at the epicentre. Whether the homosexual repression is an accurate theme of the film, as Newland remarks, Jake’s
unexplained inarticulate rage and sexual jealousy, paired with the films consistent references to anal sex and homosexuality amount to- at the very least- a conflicted, guilty sexuality.
The masculine setting of boxing serves as a sub-plot, allowing the other themes to play out. As Newland concludes in her article,
[T]he characters have all the initiative and ambition to succeed, but none of the resources. What we are left with is a pre American dream 1940s and 1950s- an alternative, grittier version; the striving but not the succeeding. Where Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990) provides us with a vision of the American dream at its most lurid, ugly excesses, Raging Bull provides us with a vision of the ‘dream’ as unattainable; scuppered from the start, the false promises and pitfalls which are just as dangerous as the success it may provide.