Many people—mostly those who are put off by the violence of the film or just find the main character to be an utterly repulsive human being in every sense of the word—are quick to ask a very important and perfectly reasonable question: why make a movie about Jake LaMotta? What, exactly, is there about this brute of a boxer and wife-abuser and hateful, jealous and apparently psychopathic individual makes him worthy of a making a film about? And if someone is going to go through the trouble of making a movie about such a real life historical figure of such minor import, then why would so many people consider that film to be one of the most essential examples of filmmaking in the history of the medium? In other words: what it is about Raging Bull that should make me want to spend what little precious free time I have for spending on entertainment submitting myself to the gritty recreation of this intensely depressing boxing movie rather than watching Rocky again for the umpteenth time so that I can feel good and uplifting?
The answer to the question revolves around the fact that a story of redemption is only as powerful as the need to be redeemed. Few character in American movie history appear to be in greater need of redemption than Jake LaMotta. The quotation from the Bible that closes Raging Bull points strongly to the point of the story being one of salvation:
"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. 24-26
the New English Bible"
Which is not the same thing as suggesting that Raging Bull is a film about Jake LaMotta’s salvation and redemption. Original screenwriter Paul Schrader is quoted in author Les Keyser’s biography of Scorsese as being completely baffled by the concept that Raging Bull can be interpreted in any possible way as a story about LaMotta’s redemption:
"I had no idea it was going to be there, and when I saw it I was absolutely baffled. I don't think it's true of La Motta either in real life or in the movie; I think he's the same dumb lug at the end as at the beginning, and I think Marty is just imposing salvation on his subject by fiat. I've never really got from him a terribly credible reason for why he did it; he just seemed to feel that it was right.”
The quote from the Bible is a reference that most assuredly raises the question of salvation and redemption, but the fact that the quote is followed immediately by a dedication of the film to Martin Scorsese’s instructor at NYU film school has the effect of making the quote a curveball rather than a fastball when it comes to analysis of the meaning. In the absence of any empirical evidence presented in the film that Jake LaMotta has found salvation by changing his violent ways and has achieved redemption through taking a journey through his own person purgatory and coming out better on the other side, the only possible reading left is that the quote from the Bible—and by extension the entire film—points to the film itself being a journey through Scorsese’s own personal purgatory and coming out on the other side with a sense of salvation and redemption.
Scorsese himself has admitted to taking on the intense project of making a movie about a boxer despite having an utter distaste for and ignorance of the sport himself for reasons related to the film’s redemptive theme. Scorsese is on record as suggesting that he looked at Raging Bull as the last opportunity Hollywood was going to give him to make a feature film of its magnitude. After delving into a personal hell of drug addiction and facing the critical wrath of “getting his comeuppance” for the wildly misunderstood New York, New York he really did see the film as a potential journey through purgatory toward redemption. To suggest that Scorsese is merely a stand-in for Jake LaMotta is, of course, far too facile and provides a key to interpreting the film that is lacking in complexity, but as far as looking for a reason to watch Raging Bull when you find its subject and protagonist repulsive, simply consider how a career deemed to have reached a dead end when filming commenced actually turned out. Heck, Scorsese even joined the long, long—looooooong—list of Hollywood figures who finally won an Academy Award after a seasoned career for a work that, unfortunately, barely registers on the scale of vital cinema in comparison to their greatest work.
Which, for Martin Scorsese, would be Raging Bull.