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“I’m Not an Animal!” Raging Bulls and Pushing the Boundaries of the Empathy Machine…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, launched a belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Taxi Driver. This week, we’re looking at Raging Bull. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s 1980 black-and-white boxing film.

“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.’

By Scorsese’s own admission, Raging Bull was a “kamikaze” film.

By the end of the seventies, Scorsese was personally and professionally wiped out. The director had just gone through his second divorce. He was recovering from a cocaine addiction that had almost killed him. Scorsese had attempted to capitalise on the critical and commercial success of Taxi Driver by making New York, New York. The film was intended as an update of the classic MGM musicals shot in a New Hollywood style, but it was a critical and commercial failure.

The New Hollywood era was ending around Scorsese. William Friedkin had been brought down to earth by the critical and commercial failure of Sorcerer, which had the misfortune to open opposite Star Wars. While Apocalypse Now had become a hit, the film’s troubled production was already the stuff of Hollywood legend. Indeed, it has been suggested that Scorsese was able to sneak Raging Bull through United Artists because its production overlapped with the attempts to fight fires on Michael Cimino’s studio-killing flop Heaven’s Gate.

Scorsese was committed to seeing through his vision of Raging Bull. He wanted to make a film that satisfied him, even if it was to be the last film that he ever made. The result is a singularly abrasive piece of work. It is a biography of the boxer Jake LaMotta that paints a harrowing and horrifying sketch of an innately violent man who succeeds in alienating everybody close to him and destroying every opportunity that he has to build a better life for himself.

Even watched forty years after its original release, Raging Bull is an uncompromising and unflinching portrayal of a protagonist who is deliberately and aggressively unlikable. This is a bold and daring move. Studio biographies are often designed to soften the rough edges of their subjects, to temper biting commentary with glimpses of humanity. Even Oliver Stone’s Nixon offers a surprisingly sensitive study of a subject that the audience might expect the director to skewer.

However, this is the power of Raging Bull. Roger Ebert famously described film as an “empathy machine”, and Raging Bull seems to probe the limits of that idea. The audience spends two hours inside the head of Jake LaMotta, and sees the man with his all his flaws and through all his failings. The film then asks its audience, having subjected them to that brutality and violence, to look on Jake as a human being deserving some measure of compassion and empathy. Raging Bull accomplishes this, one of the most remarkable feats in Scorsese’s filmography.

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