the believer (2001)


director: henry bean

ryan gosling, summer phoenix, billy zane, theresa russell

The subtle but undeniable rise in anti-semitism highlighted by the latest trouble in the mid-east might give Henry Bean's The Believer enhanced relevance, arriving in theatres as it does after years of delays. It's not a film you'd see for pleasure, unless you crave the kind of break-out performances that literally anchor the career of actors for the rest of their careers.

For some reason, skinhead thugs have provided opportunities for several young actors to prove themselves, from Tim Roth's debut in the BBC tv film Made in Britain to Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper. Ryan Gosling's Danny Balint is something entirely new, however, a furious but articulate neo-Nazi whose deep conviction and frightening intelligence is drawn from the fact that he's Jewish.

The idea is perverse - some people might consider it insulting, even inflammatory, and Bean does everything in his power to amplify that unease. Danny is occasionally disgusted with his fellow skinheads when it becomes plain that they know nothing about the people they profess to hate. His anti-Semitism comes from a combination of a precocious interpretation of the Torah, once merely meant just to antagonize his yeshiva teachers, that blossomed into a kind of aggressive despair when confronted with what Danny saw as Jewish passivity in the face of the Holocaust, a near-complicity in the awful fate of European Jews under Nazism.

It's no surprise, then, that The Believer is something of a hot potato - imagine the reaction to scenes like the one where Danny wraps a prayer shawl around his torso and turns to a mirror to give himself severl furious, stiff-armed fascist salutes. Bean does his best to provoke, prodding his characters to unexpected courses of action. When Danny begins a brutal affair with Carla (Summer Phoenix), the daughter of a neo-fascist organizer played by Theresa Russell, her discovery of his Jewishness brings out her fascination with Judaism, initially rationalized as "know your enemy", but which blooms into an obviously passionate identification with Jews, a virtual conversion that progresses through Torah lessons to ritual meals to synagogue attendance.

Bean doesn't end there, going so far as to have Danny suggest to a roomful of rich, covert fascists that the best way to get rid of the Jews is to deny them the marginalization that has defined and inspired them for centures; love the Jews, he says, and you'll destroy them. It's too much for the anti-semites, and it's the point where the film rushes forward to its grimly ecstatic conclusion. It would all be just a mess of provocative noise if it weren't for Gosling's frightening and charismatic performance, the notice of a great career ahead, and the sugar coating on a very bitter pill of a film.