Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Light in the Darkness Part 5: Raging Bull (1980)


     I’ll say right now, this finish to our “Light in the Darkness” series is going to be a little lame. Because the movie we’re looking at today is a very different kind of movie in many ways. The biggest way it’s different is in its screenplay: there’s plot, and there’s dialogue, and there’s a huge character study, but a lot of the main character’s struggle is internal. And so there isn’t a whole lot of material from the movie I’ll be able to share with you. That’s why I encourage you to go watch today’s movie, “Raging Bull”, even though in my opinion it’s the darkest of the films I’ve looked at this month. But when you watch it, be ready to think about what you’ve seen, because you might be thinking for a while.

     Director Martin Scorsese, whose film “The Departed” we looked at earlier this month, teamed up with Robert DeNiro again after working with him in films such as “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” in the 1970’s to make “Raging Bull”, a biopic on boxer Jake LaMotta, a middleweight champion in the 1940’s living in the Bronx. The film starts (sort of… just watch the movie) in 1941, when LaMotta (DeNiro) has won a fight, and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) is figuring out a match between him and a connection of his, Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent). Around that time, LaMotta meets a fifteen-year-old girl named Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) who he starts to pursue—even though he’s married. Eventually, in 1947, Jake and Vickie are married with a couple children, and Jake continues to fight, even fighting against Sugar Ray Robinson, losing to him at one point even though in the fight Jake pummeled Robinson.

     Then things start to go downhill for Jake. Joey accuses Salvy of having an affair with Vickie and fights him outside a club. Jake wins the middleweight championship title in 1949. Jake starts getting suspicious of Joey after he fought Salvy over Vickie, or so Jake thinks. Eventually, his anger gets the better of him, and he ends up beating Vickie and then walking down the street and beating up Joey because he thinks the two of them had an affair. Jake and Joey’s relationship starts to separate, and eventually Jake’s emotions lead to him losing his title to Robinson in 1951 in a brutal fight. (For the record, “Raging Bull” was shot in black-and-white, not only to correspond with the time period but also because if it had been in color, it probably wouldn’t have gotten an “R” rating because there would have been so much blood.)

     Five years later, the LaMotta family has moved to Miami, where Jake runs a nightclub. And he works so much there that at one point, Vickie leaves him and takes the kids. Some time after that, Jake is arrested for letting underage girls into his club, and that leads to one of the most painful breakdowns ever filmed, with Jake punching and hitting his head against a stone wall, weeping. But after he is released, he goes back to doing ill-received stand-up comedy at his nightclub, when one night he runs into Joey. He tries to make amends, and Joey says he forgives him, but he isn’t very vocal. And the film closes with Jake getting ready to do a comedy routine, reciting a monologue from another movie about a boxer: Marlon Brando’s “I coulda’ been a contender” speech from “On the Waterfront”. And as he leaves to go perform, the film cuts to black, and a title starts fading in:

“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

     …WHAT?! Where did that come from? Not only does the Scripture almost come out of nowhere, but it also follows a two-hour movie full of harsh obscenities, bloody violence, and adulterous relationships. Why would you want to associate John 9 with “Raging Bull”? It seriously took me a long time to understand why in the world this was the close of the movie. Is it because Jake LaMotta eventually became a Christian? Well, if he did, I haven’t found any information about it.

     But then I started learning what a personal film this was for Martin Scorsese, perhaps one of the most personal films ever made. Scorsese grew up Catholic and at one point considered becoming a priest before he decided to go into the film industry, but somewhere along the way he stumbled. Before he made “Raging Bull”, he was struggling with a cocaine addiction, and he credits DeNiro and the film with saving his life, since he eventually quit his addiction while making “Raging Bull”. Perhaps the ending of the film with this title (which includes, by the way, an explicit dedication to one of “Marty’s” former film school teachers) reflects the redemption of Martin Scorsese as well as the possible (although never really expressed) redemption of Jake LaMotta.

     But there have been others who have interpreted this passage as applying to their own lives, and one of the stories about this that impacted me the most was how “Raging Bull” influenced Craig Detwiler. Detwiler, a Christian screenwriter with a degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, writes about this in his book Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century:

      I watched the perils of self-immolation, as Jake destroyed his relationships with his brother, his wife, and his fans. Jake ends up alone, in jail, literally banging his head against the wall crying, “Why? Why? Why?” As a high school jock with an equally independent streak, I recognized far too much of myself in Jake. As the film ended, director Martin Scorsese offered a curious counterpoint. The credits read, “All I know is this, once I was blind, but now I can see.” I recognized the blindness in Jake and me, but I wondered, “What does it mean to see?” A violent, profane, R-rated movie had provided the spark to a spiritual search—film forged theology.
     …Only years later, as a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, did I hear a theological term that approximated my experience of cinema and salvation: “general revelation.” Something was revealed to me through “Raging Bull”—a sense of longing, need, and desperation. It was available to any viewer willing to endure two hours of pain for one final challenging dollop of grace. Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay, Martin Scorsese directed the movie, and Robert DeNiro gave the performance, but the Holy Spirit convicted me of sin.

     To sum up, ladies and gentlemen, I believe that Craig Detwiler would say this: Whether or not Jake LaMotta is a follower of Jesus, I do not know. All I know is this: once I was blind, and now I can see. It’s interesting how we can learn lessons about our faith in things we don’t expect. Personally, I can identify spiritually through some mainstream songs I hear on the radio, or secular books I read that deal with those kinds of themes. But I can see it the most in movies. There have been very few films where I’ve walked away and haven’t eventually thought of something from that movie that dealt with Christianity, even if the filmmakers might have been complete pagans.

     Can I do the same for the people around me? If I’m interacting with someone who is not a Christian, or is not very strong about his or her faith, can I still see a characteristic about them that he or she could use to serve God with? If I can do that, I am learning to do what God was teaching Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7: “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” My prayer for you is that in your world, wherever God has placed you, you would look past differences in people and look at the good in them—and even look for the good in your media.

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