Religion in Film: Pray for the Sinners/Raging Bull

This is part of a religion in film series, concerning spirituality in its many forms through the cinematic lens. In this article I will be exploring Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull. It chronicles the life and career of middle weight boxer Jake LaMotta and his struggles in and out of the ring. The film is an empathetic look at LaMotta as a violent, self-destructive human being, yet it’s an honest portrayal of a man struggling with his own demons. It’s an unrelenting look at a sinner who doesn’t outright ask for forgiveness, yet does he deserve it?

“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. 24-26The New English Bible” (Biblical quote at the end of Raging Bull)

We all have our own darkness inside of us. Sometimes the worst part of ourselves can creep up to the surface where we must face it. It’s the part we wish could be hidden away forever because it’s too painful to reconcile. Sometimes we can feel shame because of it, or anguish, or guilt. Yet it’s a part of us, no matter how hard we try to deny it.I try very hard to see the best in people, even the ones who feel like they don’t deserve it. I wouldn’t say I’m successful, sometimes I lash out despite my best instincts. I see monsters on the news all the time, such as Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein, where when something bad happens to them, I feel an almost glee knowing that they are suffering. Then there are those who claim to know the bible and the teachings of God and Jesus, yet their words reflect a bias and hate towards marginalized minorities, it’s difficult for me to understand their point of view.

Logic and society seem to dictate that these people are the sinners, they are the ones who have abused their power, and their entitlement has shown this. They show no mercy for the meek whom we are told “shall inherit the Earth”. Yet they prevail, and we judge them for it. It’s difficult not to judge them, we see them doing terrible things, but they are rarely ever punished. They are the cause of so much despair, yet they can get away with murder. We see what they are doing is evil, and we demand justice, but it never comes. All we can do is brood in judgement, for we find ourselves powerless.

The bible has told us to “judge not, that ye be not judged”, but every day becomes harder to reconcile that sentiment. I do admit, I feel guilt when I find myself judging somebody, and I feel hatred within me bubbling up to the surface. I take little solace in the church, or christians in general when I feel like this, as past experiences have conveyed a lack of complexity on their part. However, sometimes when I look for answers, I choose film to show me the light.

In Martin Scorsese’s film Raging Bull we are shown a life of one such person who, if we were to pass him on the street, might want to spit in his face. This man is a violent, abusive, primitive, animal, who might suggest no such empathy be given to him. Yet through the film, we see the damage of this type of man, and how his feelings of jealousy, and guilt lead him to perform his own sort of absolution for his sins.

Raging Bull is the story of Jake LaMotta (Rober DeNiro), a Middleweight boxer full of self-destructive tendencies, not the least of which is his violent behaviour. We see Jake fight in the ring like a man posessed, consumed by his own insecurities, fears and desires. He wants to be the best there is, yet even he knows he’ll never get a chance to prove it. Being a middle weight, means he’ll never be the heavy weight champion of the world which he feels entitled to. This revelation into LaMotta’s character shows an inferiority in himself, but also a lack of control in his own destiny. He’s his own worst enemy and perhaps psychologically, he knows that.

We see boxing as a sport for LaMotta, but Scorsese creates it more as a metaphor for his life. The fights are staged not as carefully choreographed bits of movements between fighters, like we would see in the Rocky films, but rather as an expression of Jake’s inner psyche. Scorsese plays with camera lenses, angles, as well as different soundscapes to immerse us into what Jake might be feeling, or battling within himself during these fights.

Much of his rage is aimed towards the women in his life, primarily his girlfriend and later wife Vikkie (Cathy Moriarty). When Jake first meets her she is 15 years old, but is already a street smart girl friendly with the local mobsters. Jake’s obsession with Vikkie turns toxic as he grows to suspect her of infidelity. Although it is never proven she has been unfaithful, the film is able to get into Jake’s head, showing his point of view. In certain frames, the camera slows in on Vikkie as Jake observes her, sometimes showing her off in rather erotic imagery, but when she is with other men, it hones in on her movements and gestures, which to Jake appear highly suspect. Things come to a boil, when Jake even accuses his brother of sleeping with her, which later turns into the film’s most harrowing act of violence.

We see this self-destructive personality take its toll on Jake. In the third act of the film, he has retired from boxing, and is shown as a shadow of his former self, gaining 60 pounds and owner of a nightclub. DeNiro famously put on the weight himself, which actually caused him health trouble, however it never feels like an act of vanity, but rather an artistic expression of the character’s pyschological breakdown. Here we see him now cut off from his wife and brother, and put in jail for the prostitution of a minor. We see him break down, alone in his cell hitting the wall with his bare hands shouting “Why, why why?” He is framed almost entirely in darkness, although Scorsese is careful to show a little light on his shoulder.

To look at the life of Jake LaMotta, is to look at a deplorable human being, someone who you would want to avoid. It is documented that he was a serial abuser to the women in his life, and maybe never got the type of forgiveness and grace in reality as was offered in the film. So why does he matter? It’s difficult to say, films aren’t always meant to give us a moral compass, yet Scorsese and DeNiro obviously had something in mind when they wanted to create a portrait of such an unhinged character. What we get is a very humane film about a man who was often seen as an animal. He is described as a “gorilla” by one unsavory mobster, and although he does things that are deemed immoral, we also see him as a bruised and battered human being.

Looking at the boxing matches again, we see it as a way for LaMotta to punish himself. Along with hurting other people, he is also a masochist. He tortures himself in the ring, and perhaps it is the only way he knows how he can be forgiven. This type of behavious is shown outside of the ring too, with the aformentioned punching the walls of his cell, but also when he gets his brother to punch him as hard as he can in the face. Scorsese is drawing a line between violence and forgiveness, and how the two might be one and the same. We can see how this could be attributed to the christian religion in the way guilt can turn to self-punishement. Violence has always been a part of christianity, one just has to look at the most masochistic mainstream movie of all time The Passion of the Christ to know it’s true.

Although it is never outwardly discussed, God is often seen, but never mentioned in the film. There are images of the cross, or pictures of the virgin Mary strewn about in certain scenes. In the door frame of Jake’s bedroom, the place where he deals with his sexual frustrations with Vikkie, we see these images as a common motif. When he is in the corner of his boxing ring, his assitants work on him more like catholic priests, annointing his wounds as if it was a ritual. There is an act of absolution going on throughout, and it is here a man like Jake LaMotta can get his grace.

Jake LaMotta passed away a few years ago, and when most people remember his name, it is primarily because of this film. Raging Bull stands as a work of art about a despicable man. Maybe he didn’t deserve the forgiveness and redemption the film hints with at the end. If he were around today, doing the things he did in his time, he would certainly be looked down upon and rejected by our society. Scorsese has made a career out of showcasing sordid types from Goodfellas Henry Hill to Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort. These are all men who never seem sorry for their sins, yet in the end they are always humbled. Perhaps it’s Scorsese’s way of trying to seek morality in what sometimes feels like our immoral world.

Martin Scorsese almost became a priest before becoming a filmmaker. He has always been able to ask the hard questions about faith and religion in his films. In this way, he has become somewhat of a patron saint of cinema. Seeing the characters he takes on, we can see that his work as director can be more or less a father confessor. With Jake LaMotta, it almost seems as if Scorsese is working as a priest in his own right. The film itself transends the limitations of the material world by becoming a piece of art. It could be thought of as Jake LaMotta’s confession, and for that the subject has received penance. In this way, Scorsese’s films work as atonement for the sinners. If they are beyond mercy, then it is not for us to say. All we can do is witness, and maybe find a little grace.

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