Raging Bull presents a definitive demonstration of the influence that a director can wield over a film when he was not the sole screenwriter. Such is the extent of the influence on the story of Jake LaMotta that director Martin Scorsese holds that Raging Bull can actually be quite accurately interpreted as a biographical retelling of the story of Scorsese himself.
The suggestion that Raging Bull is every bit as much a psychological biopic of its director as it is as historical biopic of its subject, boxer Jake LaMotta, is by no means one of those critical extrapolations of the actual content of a film that can only be made manifest through the loosest terms of analysis. If Raging Bull can be boiled down to just one essential theme, it is as the most overt example of a common theme running throughout nearly every entry in the body of Martin Scorsese’s work. That theme is the working out of how sin can lead to salvation through the process of redemption. That both the main character of the film and its director—not to mention its star and much of its supporting cast—all grew up in a social milieu heavily influenced by Catholicism’s obsession with sin, redemption and salvation only lends even more credence to this examination of the influence of Scorsese on a script that was predominantly the work of Protestant Calvnist screenwriter Paul Schrader.
Scorsese’s canon is one that is filled with characters who commit sin, feel guilt that leads them to seek redemption and that often ends with at least the hope for salvation. Scorsese himself honestly believed that Raging Bull would be the last film he’d be allowed to make following the disaster that his big-budget New York, New York was perceived to be a few years earlier and his subsequent descent into near-fatal drug addiction. So, in a very real sense, Raging Bull is not just a film about finding salvation, it is a film in which the making provided salvation to its director.
Raging Bull tells the story of a fighter who rejects the standard conventions applied to becoming world middle champion in an era when the road to that championship had to get through the authority of the Mob. Replace fighting with filmmaking, the Mob with the equally conservative Hollywood executives who control who gets to the top and you have a film telling a parallel story—on a metaphorical level—about a filmmaker insistent on rejecting much of the conventional wisdom about getting to the top of the moviemaking industry. Nevertheless, by making a few necessary sacrifices he deems to be greater sins than some others he commits, Jake LaMotta doe rise to be champion. Just as Martin Scorsese eventually rose to be crowned champion in Hollywood.