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The Believer

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Believer

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Summer Phoenix
Director: Henry Bean
Rated: R
RunTime: 100 Minutes
Release Date: January 2001
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Billy Zane, Theresa Russell, A.D. Miles

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

There's an old expression: put ten Jews in a room to discuss anything controversial and you get eleven opinions. In Israel today, for example, citizens hold political views from left to right ranging from giving up the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem to taking over the Palestinian areas and expelling the Arab population. There are about a dozen political parties represented in the parliament. But one opinion you won't find among Jews anywhere in the world is that the Nazis are good guys. Nonetheless even among the purportedly rational people in Henry Bean's pulsating drama, "The Believer," one elderly man's opinion veers closely toward that view. A Holocaust surviver, now in his late eighties, holds forth that six million Jews were killed in the camps because the Jews had turned away from the Torah: that God himself created Hitler to punish the Jews.

But that Holocaust survivor has nothing on the principal character in the film, Danny Baling (Ryan Goslin from "Murder by Numbers"), a brilliant product of the yeshivas who has a severely conflicted feeling about his own people. He's a New York skinhead who preaches anti-Semitic hate while at the same time he wears the tallis and is fluent in Hebrew. In the story's very opening, he fixes his gaze on a young Orthodox student (Peter Meadows) riding the subway and reading intently, steps on the guy's shoes, follows him into the streets and beats the stuffing out of him calling him a "yeshiva bucher." How could this be? That's only the beginning. In scene after visceral scene in a film that never lets up, director Bean in this winner of the 2001 Sundance film Festival Grand Jury Prize wants us to wonder how Danny got his perverted, self-hating views, offering only smidgens of evidence linking him to his corrupted philosophy. Never mind that he has a passive father and no mother in the household. Millions of people face that condition. Far more important is that Danny at the age of twelve engages in an intense argument with his teacher in a discussion of the first book of the Bible. While the instructor probably believes that Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his own son, Isaac, proves that it is only right that human beings subordinate their wills to that of the creator, Danny holds that this proves that God is everything, the big cohuna, and human beings are nothing but weaklings. From that point, Danny develops an animosity toward the Jewish people, and is determined to fight back against this perceived weakness by hanging out with skinheads, plotting the destruction of synagogues and the killing of influential Jews.

Though Mr. Bean is known for scripting slick commercial thrillers like "Internal Affairs" and "Enemy of the States," he comes up with a provocative story which is based, I think, on an actual case of one Daniel Burros, a Jewish Nazi during the 1960's. With Jim Denault's hand-held camera zooming in on a group of fascists who plan to use Danny to raise funds and make a showing (like France's Le Pen?) In the legitimate political arena, "The Believer" fixates almost obsessively on Ryan Gosling in the title role as he carries out an affair with a young woman, Carla (Summer Phoenix), who is the daughter of extreme right-wing woman Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) but is more excited by Danny's passions than by her mother's politics and is determined to learn Hebrew, light candles on the Sabbath, and attend services in a synagogue. As the mostly moronic members of the skinhead group gradually wonder whether Danny is himself a Jew, Danny's very life is threatened.

"The Believer" can leave the viewer confused about Danny's strange views, thinking about the roots of the abnormal philosophy, but that's all to the good. Tony Kaye's "American History X" is also hard-hitting, dealing with a young man who is seduced into a white supremacy movement on the West Coast, but Kaye's story has the all-too-pat ending so common among blockbuster releases from Hollywood. "The Believer" could be called, then, the thinking person's "American History X," an intense, honest, drama that compels attention, stirs the emotions and stimulates thought.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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