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In the opening scene of Raging Bull, Scorsese establishes the themes that control the rest of the film. Although it looks like a long take that lacks editing, the scene is visibly employing a formalistic quality because of the abstractness. I think that throughout the film, the fight scenes have formalist tendencies while the scenes on the domestic front lean toward realism. In this first scene, Jake is a depicted shadow boxing in a smoky boxing ring, seemingly inspired by his mental and physical preparation. Physically, he is preparing for the boxing match he will be competing in; mentally Jake is preparing for the battles he will face in his relationships with those around him. Through the use of mise-en-scene we are introduced to the dominant themes. The scene opens with a long shot of Jake, who is illuminated by top lighting. By using top lighting, Scorsese seemingly isolates Jake from the rest of the scene, commenting on Jake’s isolation from those around him. Further commenting on this idea is the idea that the people in the background outside the ring are barely visible, developing Jake’s sense of autonomy and individualism. As we watch Jake gracefully dance around the ring through the ropes, we get the sense that he is caged in. Another aspect of the mise-en-scene, Jake’s leopard print robe, gives Jake an animalistic quality, signifying that he needs to be caged in the boxing ring. The fact that Jake is on the left side of the screen notes his weak mental position. Lastly, the non-digetic soundtrack is classical music, further commenting on the melancholy preparation for battle. Observing this mise-en-scene, we are already familiar with the leading themes of the film without the need for a single word of dialogue.
Scenes that include dialogue, such as the scene following Jake’s first fight when he bullies his first wife around, also express Jake’s aggression and interpersonal conflicts. Jake is depicted with his animalistic nature as a societal outcast, incapable of well-mannered relationships with his neighbors and even those who love him. The scene opens with La Motta in an undershirt, with a black-and-blue face from his fight, with three point lighting being applied. Jake is eating like an animal, yelling at his wife: “Don’t overcook it. You overcook it, it’s no good.” The desire for an undercooked, bloody steak represents Jake’s carnivorous inclination. The camera cuts to a tracking shot zooming in on an obviously irritated Irma; in the mise-en-scene there is a clock directly in front of her head, implying that her time with Jake is coming to an imminent end. Scorsese frames Irma in the kitchen, using the mise-en-scene to show her separateness from Jake. As the two argue about how the steak should be cooked, we see the shot/reverse shot method of editing being implemented, adhering to the 180 degree rule. Exhausted by Jake’s badgering, Irma brings the steak over to him and slaps it on his plate. The camera cuts to a medium shot of the unpredictably explosive Jake flipping the table over, steak and all.
At this point we are introduced to Jake’s relationship with his brother and the conflict with the mob that will be a prevalent problem throughout the film. The film cross-cuts to Joey talking to Sal, agreeing to talk to Jake about an association with the mobster Tommy. Then it cross-cuts back to the apartment where Jake is violently pushing his wife around as Joey enters the frame. Irma subsequently slams the door, literally putting a barrier between her and her ferocious husband and figuratively showing their isolation once again. The off-screen voice of the neighbor Larry calls out, “What’s the matter with you up there, you animals?” The camera cuts to a medium two shot of Jake and Joey, then to a shot of Jake framed by the window, hollering back at Larry that he will eat his dog for lunch. The statement further illustrates Jake’s instinctive nature while the mise-en-scene of Jake in the window depicts his isolation from the entire society outside the apartment. Then we see an eye-line match of Irma’s silhouette through the bedroom curtains from Jake’s perspective. The mise-en-scene used here gives us the feeling of an impersonal relationship
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