I'm one-half Italian-American myself, born into a family of second-generation immigrants who were, thankfully, nothing like Jake, Joey, Salvy and so on, but there's certainly a good deal of iconography in my lost time that is made living image, or sound, in the film—crucifixes hung over beds, swing music wafting from distant radios, public pools, and so on. The meticulous and deeply felt re-creation of an all-but vanished world is one of the aspects of the film that grow ever more resonant over the years, at least for me.
And that's why I think that Kael got it wrong when she supposed that she was supposed to be responding to "a powerful, ironic realism." There is no irony here. Part of what's so uncomfortable is the film's absolute lack of distance, which could conceivably lead some viewers to give just a tiny bit of credence to Jake's incredible paranoia about Vickie's fidelity. Scorsese and star Robert DeNiro do not stand in judgement of Jake; they lay out who he is, and they chronicle his disintegration, not with empathy per se, but rather a tacit acknowledgement of affinity. It is not a coincidence, I think, that Scorsese took on Raging Bull after a period in which, as he put it, "I went through a lot of problems." DeNiro had been trying to get Scorsese to consider the material since around the time of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and made an impassioned pitch to Scorsese while visiting the director in the hospital in the late summer of 1978. Scorsese says he was "fascinated" by the self-destructive side of LaMotta's nature, but it doesn't take much reading between the lines to understand that this fascination was hardly a detached one. One of the screenwriters who worked on Raging Bull was Paul Schrader, a man who was no stranger to self-destructive behavior himself, and it's interesting to consider just how far he wanted to take things; in an interview, he recalled his version of the Dade County stockade sequence, which portrayed LaMotta trying to masturbate to recalled images of Vickie and failing to achieve an erection. Um, ouch.
All that being the case, one may still be stuck with the question famously mocked by Vladimir Nabokov: "What is the guy trying to say?" Robin Wood's brilliant exegesis on the film as a study of homosexual panic, in his book Hollywood: From Vietnam To Reagan, represents a particularly dazzling answer to that poser. (David Thomson, sounding for all the world as if he'd hit upon the interpretation all by himself—and for all I know of his reading in film criticism, he well might have—reiterated this reading in a few years back.) And even so: so what, finally? One does not necessarily respond all that viscerally to a detailed examination of a psychosexual theme. I mean, some do, but I hope I won't be taken as protesting too much when I say that's not quite it for me. What, then? Of course the film's imagery and sound cast an incredible, irreproducible spell...but I think what finally moves me so about the picture is something I can't put into words, or perhaps am too afraid to put into words.
What the film represents from this particular temporal perspective is a little easier to pin down. In the interview book Scorsese on Scorsese, from which the above Scorsese quote is cited, the director says, "I put everything I knew and felt into that film and I thought it would be the end of my career. It was what I call a kamikaze way of making movies; pour everything in, then forget about it and go find another way of life."
In his introduction to the second volume of Michael Powell's autobiography, Scorsese recalls the greatest lesson he derived from mentor Powell: "He reassured that in me most of all: You believe in an idea, a concept, a story, a statement you want to make, and that's the foundation of the film. You do not waver from it. Whether it takes you all the way down, whether it takes you to the edge, then pushes you off, even to the point of not making another film for thirty years, you do not waver. You'd better make that picture, even if you know it's suicide." DeNiro and Scorsese made Raging Bull as if their lives depended on it. Both the actor and director operate from very different places today, and whether we ought to begrudge them on that count is something we can perhaps discuss below. But the commitment you see in Raging Bull is still staggering.