Opera Meets Film: How the ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ Intermezzo Contextualizes & Creates Character in ‘Raging Bull’

By Francisco Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Martin Scorcese’s “Raging Bull.”

Last week’s edition of this series focused on how Francis Ford Coppola took an entire opera and modeled his film around it. This week, we look at how Scorcese took one moment from that same opera to set up his entire “Raging Bull.”

The Intermezzo from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” is delicate, nostalgic, yearning, and beautifully structured for its incredible effect. It is a calm that divides the messy emotions of the opera that it accompanies, notable for how “clean” it is within this overall context.

Scorcese’s use of the piece in “Raging Bull” is actually a bookend, we start and end the film with this piece of music, the latter use coming in the credits and the first, as a prelude.

Ballet & Boxing

As the light comes up on the opening image of the film we see Jake la Motta in a boxing ring, a distant figure, almost ghostly as he moves about the boxing ring in slow motion. This effect makes him look more like a ghost than a real entity and his movements take on an otherworldly effect.

But the imagery is rather clear – this is boxing we are talking about, a brutal, arguably ugly sport in which two people come at each other like animals to pummel the other into oblivion. At its height boxing is chaos.

Scorcese knows these things, but he also knows the power of music to affect how we can view a moment. He knows that by combining the imagery of his ghostly boxer, devoid a true identity and linking it to this gentle and passionate piece of music, he can soften how we view the sport. In the context of the first image, it doesn’t look violent or chaotic, it looks balletic. It feels poetic. We are seeing his spirit as Scorcese wants us to see it.

With the audience making this connection, Scorcese can now move ahead with his film, creating an understanding in our minds that the story to unfold will marry all of these elements together to create a poetic portrait of a violent man.

Creating Empathy

More importantly, the opening sequence creates empathy for the character and the juxtaposition of this scene with the next also establishes the tragedy of the story, making the audience connect on a deeper level.

Imagine the film without this opening?

We would immediately go to the club to listen to a burnt-out Jake La Motta preparing his act. We don’t get much context for the scene previously so we just accept that our protagonist exists in these circumstances.

But with the previous scene, in which the audience, whether consciously or subconsciously, understands this ghostly boxer to be Jake La Motta, the juxtaposition becomes powerful. We just went from seeing this graceful and heroic figure, underscored by some of the most gorgeous music ever composed. And now, we are faced with a man who is anything but graceful, standing still in front of a mirror with no music accompanying him whatsoever. It makes our connection to Jake even stronger and our desire to understand this fall from grace even more passionate.

Finally, by harkening back to the Intermezzo for the film’s credits, Scorcese calls the audience back to the beginning. We have now experienced the entire journey of La Motta and have a decidedly different image of him. At the start we saw his grace and elegance in the ring. Can we say the same after having watched the whole entire film? It becomes more complicated and yet Scorcese wants that image to return to us, almost asking the audience not to judge the man but to admire his spirit.



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