In the 1920s, German Expressionism films communicated the inner emotions and conflicts of characters with lighting and the design of sets. The visual design of these films expressed the inner thoughts of characters through minimal dialogue.
Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) is a biopic centering on boxing champion Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) and his self-destructive behavior, which ultimately destroys both his personal and professional life. The film's use of stylized cinematography, lighting, and set design provide an in-depth understanding of Jake La Motta and his deterioration as a character. These techniques also demonstrate the internal life of its characters rather than their external façade. The design of the sets and its established atmosphere also express Jake La Motta’s diminishing stature and emphasize his obscure characteristics.
The use of black and white in the film allows for a focus on character. The lack of color causes the role of blood to be downplayed because its popping reds are never shown. This allows other parts of the visual design, including light and sets, to further communicate emotions and conflicts. In the course of the film, color makes its way into a single scene, a home video montage sequence of the title character's life outside of boxing with his family, along with his marriage to Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). This sequence provides a stark visual contrast from the rest of the film and exhibits realism in comparison to expressionism.
The choice of lighting in the film also allows a look inside the character’s psyche to better understand his mental state. In the third act of the film, Jake La Motta’s insecurities and jealousy drive him to physically harm his wife and brother, Joey (Joe Pesci). In a scene that follows, we see Jake La Motta sitting in front of a broken television. The television does not have a signal and is full of static and noise. This parallels his anger and frustration as he sits in darkness. The light from the television casts harsh shadows on his bruised face, which highlights his internal conflicts. The deep shadows suggest a darker personality and reveal the animal within him. The harsh shadows also represent his violent behavior and provide suggestions of guilt and regret as he sits in isolation. Jake La Motta's withdrawal from the outside world to the confines of his living room in complete darkness also demonstrates his unwillingness to overcome his madness; even when his rage is not being physically displayed on his family or during his fights, he conceals the fury within him. The lighting reflects his masked aggression which is buried within his soul. These are the characteristics and behavior traits that ultimately cause Jake La Motta’s downfall.
In the course of the film, both inside and outside of the ring, Jake La Motta is an animal. In his personal life, his anger causes him to lash out at his family. In his jail cell following his arrest, the lighting patterns illuminate certain parts of the room. This creates a zigzag effect on the screen, which causes a portion of the cell to be filled with light whereas the rest is in complete darkness. This establishes a sense of repulsion within the room and creates a bleak tone. Jake La Motta angrily beats his fits and head onto the wall then sits in agony. Jake La Motta thus "beats himself up" over his mistakes as the beast within him takes control. The lighting of the jail cell establishes the essential atmosphere to demonstrate his diminishment at the end of his career. In this scene, he is caged behind bars and attempts to release his aggression through physical harm. This also resembles his professional life and his confinement to the boxing ring where his physical strength was his sole escape. In other words, he is in the darkest point in his life and through his self-destructive behavior, he has reached complete isolation.
These inner conflicts are also paralleled through the set design and its connection to his life inside the ring. Martin Scorsese’s frequent use of Catholic imagery is seen clearly throughout the film. Jake La Motta takes Vickie to his father’s apartment after their first meeting. The kitchen, living room and bedroom consist of countless references to Catholicism, through the display of crosses and hangings on the wall of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Their sexual scenes in the bedroom are also intercut between two fights, both against Sugar Ray Robinson in 1943. These references provide suggestions of guilt, sin and atonement for him as his marriage fails due to his affair and as his career worsens at the hands of Sugar Ray Robinson in the ring. The juxtaposition of fighting with love making also suggests his inability to differentiate between the two. Vickie ultimately becomes his life partner and Sugar Ray Robinson becomes a frequent rival of Jake La Motta's.
Jake La Motta’s deterioration both in his life and career becomes evident during his fight against Tony Janiro. Vickie’s innocent remark when she claims that his rival is “good looking” causes him to question his wife’s loyalty. In the fight between Tony Janiro and Jake La Motta, the boxing ring is relatively wider. This allows us to understand the condition of his behavior. The width of the ring allows Jake La Motta to demonstrate his wrath and aggressively move from one end to the other and pin his opponent. This maximizes the movement area and therefore emphasizes the action. The use of slow motion showcases his brutality, a behavior carried over from his personal life with his wife. The camera is also placed at a slightly lower angle, which emphasizes his domineering size. The use of close-ups adds intensity to the fighting techniques and shows his ferocity. The viciousness of the fight allows us to experience how his personal affairs from his family began causing his self-deterioration. Jake La Motta's insecurities over his wife had resulted in him taking out his anger on a fighter, and as a result, being incapable of finding balance between his career and personal life.
The visual design of Jake La Motta’s final fight against Sugar Ray Robinson also demonstrates his deterioration inside the ring. In their final meeting, the overall atmosphere during this particular fight is much more intense. The extensive use of slow motion editing allows us to feel the alienation within the ring. The fighters are also surrounded in dense smoke and the audience is almost never visible. This allows us to focus on the fighters, which feel separated from reality. This also adds to the notion of a jungle-like atmosphere within the ring. The impact of each punch is felt through the distortion in the sound, creating the impression that Jake La Motta is seriously injured. The noise of the audience is also muffled resembling his state of consciousness. In fact, even the cameras photographing the action appear louder and much more intensified, along with the brutal punches which are accompanied by animal shrieks. Jake La Motta’s beaten face becomes unrecognizable over the course of the fight. These elements of visual design create a distinct atmosphere which enhances the cruelty and intensity of the fight.
In this fight, his diminishing stature is also emphasized by the larger ring size and choice of camera. In his earlier fights, he was placed in a smaller ring which accentuated his physical size and strength. This larger boxing ring creates the impression that is role is decreasing and suggestions the deterioration of his strength. This also ties into his overwhelming feelings of insecurity, jealousy and inferiority that plague him throughout the rest of the film. These feelings ultimately alienate him from everyone, including his wife and brother. In the final series of brutal punches, we are able to get a glimpse of the domineering Sugar Ray Robinson. The camera focuses on him and tilts down, effectively lighting him from behind, thus making him appear larger and more separated from the background. This, in turn, causes a monstrous display of the victorious Sugar Ray Robinson. This lower angle emphasizes his position over Jake La Motta. Sugar Ray Robinson is intercut between images of his opponent, resting on the rope and his appearance in comparison to the diminishing Jake La Motta draws attention to his physical size. The camera placement and expressionism in this sequence allows us to feel the burden Jake La Motta feels during the match. In addition, through Jake La Motta’s subjective perspective, we also get a distorted view of reality that reflects his mind state. The blurry images and distorted sound are accompanied with the feeling that the boxing ring is off balance. This allows us to feel him weakening, both physically and emotionally.
It's through Expressionism techniques that Martin Scorsese emphasizes Jake La Motta’s deterioration both inside and outside the ring in Raging Bull. The choice of lighting helps emphasize the hidden characteristics in the personality that emotionally disturbed the title character. The visual design of the fights helps create an atmosphere that shows us his diminishment over the course of the film. These techniques help focus on the inner conflicts rather than the outward appearance of the character. Jake La Motta ultimately had to defend himself against his inner demons.