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Written by Timothy Sexton
“You never got me down.” “I don’t go down for nobody.” Jake LaMotta expresses the idea so often that it becomes a recurring motif and almost a mantra. He won’t let any boxer knock him to the canvas and he won’t let anything that life throws at him keep him from pressing on. Jake was fighter, not a boxer and he wasn’t the stronger fighter in every match he won. He was usually the most tenacious, however, and willing and able to take punishment that would have stopped a less aggressive instinct. Many of the wins that mark Jake’s career were the result of simply being able to outlast his opponent thus become the fighter with the strength to throw the last punch. Outside the ring, he was just as tenacious. When he was suspended from the ring for throwing a match, he came back strong enough to finally win the title. When he lost his wife and wound up in jail, he did what he was famous for doing inside the ring: bowing his head down and tenaciously moving forward, utterly aware of the punishment such a stance would inflict, but able to come out on the other side still on his feet rather than flat on his back.
Like all the other great films in Martin Scorsese’s canon, Raging Bull is about the possibility of finding redemption. Such a task seems hopeless in light of the reprehensibility of the main character, but then that is the point. Redemption is easy for the saints, but one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity is that redemption is within reach of even the greatest sinners. Vile and repulsive though he may be, it is arguable that Jake LaMotta belongs to that group, but certainly the path to redemption seems unlikely. The central scene in that path is the last fight with Sugar Ray Robinson when an already bruised and beaten LaMotta lays down his gloves, lowers his defenses and welcomes the punishing flurry of Sugar Ray’s lightning quick blows landing like sandbags on flesh. This represents a turning point for Jake; a willingness to do the penance necessary to expiate his sins and seek salvation. He still has a long way to go and will lose everyone he cares about, but the very fact that he is capable of going out there on that stage in the New York nightclub and performing his little one-man show is perhaps as redemptive as it gets for a guy like Jake.
The boxing sequences are not exactly realistic and not exactly unrealistic in Raging Bull. They exist on a completely different plane than the average boxing film because the bouts are not really about the sport. The ring takes on a profoundly symbolic character in which Jake can unleash all his repressed and suppressed emotions in a violence sanctioned by law and acceptable to society. Of course, it is important to understand that Jake can hardly be accused of repressing or suppressing all his negative energy. When that anger and fury is unleashed outside the ring against his wives or his brother or his enemies, the very same brutality for which he is paid well and receives the adoration of the public becomes utterly unacceptable and outside the confines of the law. So the boxing ring is not just an area for the exhibition of unleashed repression, it is also a mechanism for sublimating those raging emotions in the single most positive way imaginable for someone with Jake’s background. Just as the movie set is a channel for Martin Scorsese to sublimate his own repressed desires and drives in a positive manner.
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