"The Believer" won the 2001 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but viewers worried its protagonist, a Jew, is so articulate in anti-Semitism that he could win converts. It's tempting to protect people less skilled than we are at handling such material. A Wiesenthal Center screening sparked protest, and no distributor would carry the film, until cable, first postponing it after 9/11, aired it the next spring. It's good - it also won Independent Spirit's Best Screenplay and Best First Feature, its lead won Best Actor, and Ms. Phoenix, Best Supporting Actor - but the viewer will ask if we need Jewish neo-Nazis.
The anti-hero, Danny Balint, is based on a real person, described by The New York Times: "Daniel Burros, a nice Jewish boy, was a star yeshiva pupil who became a proponent of the defunct Third Reich, and joined the U.S. Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. After Burros' 1965 arrest at a KKK event, The Times disclosed that he was Jewish. Hours after the paper hit the stands, Burros took his life."
Balint is bright, and argues with teachers. What kind of God would demand Abraham sacrifice his son? "A conceited bully," he concludes. Rejecting his upbringing, he confronts Jews, beats one up, and expresses contempt for a race he says didn't fight back in the Holocaust. He falls in with neo-Nazis headed by Lina (Russell) and Curtis (Zane), who aren't as convincingly portrayed as Danny's quest: he cares only about Jewish "weakness," a "willingness" to be victims. His anti-Semitism is self-hate.
Sentenced to a Holocaust survivors' therapy group, he bluntly asks why they didn't fight back, and says Israelis aren't Jews - they own and defend their land. Such views twist him; he values his fighting and his brashness, but in a sick hope a Jew will best him.
Gosling is powerful; he starred as a young killer modeled on Leopold and Loeb who felt superior enough to commit murder ("Murder by Numbers"). His Danny reminds us of Edward Norton in "American History X," also about a bright youth twisted into racism. Joining a temple raid, Danny admits that he resents skinheads for not knowing what they're attacking: Danny accepts Judaism at the core of his soul; he fights himself.
This movie makes you want time afterward to discuss it, which might make it meaningful. Bean has genuine concern and took big chances, but we always have people who take messages the wrong way.
Henry Bean and Mark Jacobson
Ryan Gosling, Summer Phoenix, Theresa Russell, Billy Zane, A.D. Miles
Neo-Nazis, self-hate, Daniel Burros, Simon Wiesenthal Center
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