Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull: A cinematic knockout that redefined filmmaking

Author’s note: This is fifth in a series of articles that I call #EssentialScorseseFilms. It is a celebration of the iconic director’s cinematic legacy before Killers of the Flower Moon. While Martin Scorsese’s prolific career has spanned decades and produced a plethora of remarkable films, I recognise that it is impossible to cover them all within the confines of this series. Therefore, I have chosen to focus on his major works that have, I believe, have come to embody the essence of Scorsese’s unparalleled artistry. 

As a film buff, I’ve always believed that cinema at its best possesses the remarkable ability to transport us to different worlds, evoke raw emotions, and hold a mirror to the human condition. Among the countless films that I think succeed in this regard Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull stands tall as an enduring masterpiece that has both captivated and haunted me in equal measure. t’s a reminder that, as we explored in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese is a versatile filmmaker, capable of delivering a rock-solid sports drama, albeit with a distinctive Scorsese touch. 

The making of a masterpiece

Scorsese, already celebrated for his gritty portrayal of the criminal underworld in films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, teamed up with Robert De Niro for the fourth time to bring Raging Bull to life. The film was based on the autobiography of Jake LaMotta, a middleweight boxer whose tumultuous life and career were ripe for cinematic exploration. The film’s screenplay, penned by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, masterfully captured the complexity of LaMotta’s character.

One of the defining aspects of Raging Bull is De Niro’s transformative performance as Jake LaMotta. To prepare for the role, De Niro underwent a radical physical transformation, gaining 60 pounds to portray the older, out-of-shape LaMotta in the latter part of the film. His dedication to the role was nothing short of remarkable, and his portrayal of LaMotta’s inner turmoil and self-destructive tendencies earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Scorsese’s direction and the film’s cinematography, led by Michael Chapman, were groundbreaking, and ,not only for their time. Raging Bull introduced the world to the use of black-and-white cinematography in a contemporary context, a decision that lent the film an aura of timelessness and added to its artistic merit. The stark, high-contrast visuals not only captured the brutality of the boxing ring but also mirrored the inner struggles of its protagonist.

The film’s fight sequences are some of the most memorable in cinematic history. Scorsese’s use of slow-motion, intense close-ups, and innovative camera work put the audience right in the middle of the ring, feeling every punch and drop of sweat. These scenes were a visceral and emotional experience that set a new standard for the depiction of sports on the big screen.

Of self-destruction and redemption

At its core, Raging Bull, like many Scorsese films, is a character study of a man plagued by his own demons and insecurities. His self-destructive behavior, both inside and outside the ring, drives much of the film’s narrative. Scorsese’s unflinching exploration of LaMotta’s flaws and the toll they take on his relationships with his family, particularly his brother Joey (played brilliantly by another Scorsese regular Joe Pesci), is both heartbreaking and powerful.

The film also delves into themes of redemption and the human capacity for change. Despite his many flaws, LaMotta’s relentless spirit and determination make him a complex and ultimately sympathetic character. The final scenes of the film, where he recites Marlon Brando’s famous “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront, reveal a glimmer of self-awareness and regret, offering a poignant note of redemption.

Raging Bull only elevated the art of biographical filmmaking but also redefined the possibilities of cinematic storytelling. The film’s influence can be seen in countless sports dramas, character studies, and black-and-white cinematography choices that followed in its wake.

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