This powerful, provocative first feature from screenwriter-turned-director Henry Bean is loosely based on the true story of Daniel Burros, a member of the American Nazi party in the 1970s who committed suicide after a New York Times reporter revealed that he was Jewish. In Bean’s version, the protagonist is Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), a fiercely intelligent former Yeshiva student who we see beating up a defenceless Yeshiva boy, using a caricatured Jewish family for target practise, and making eloquent speeches which help to raise funds for the neo-fascist group fronted by the respectable middle-class racist Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) and her lover, Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane).
Ironically, it is when Danny’s words flow, rather than when his fists fly, that we see him at his most brilliant, and at his most conflicted. While attending a weekend training camp organised by the neo-Nazi group, Danny and a bunch of his skinhead friends harangue the owner of a kosher dinerothe latter with predictable racial taunts, Danny with a sophisticated argument about the absurdities of what is and what is not considered kosher food. Danny’s rigorous questioning of his Jewish faith and racial identity derives in part from the Torah’s emphasis on the notion that everything contains its own opposite. His frustration with what he perceives as the passivity of his people forces him to become its violent antithesis, a neo-Nazi thug. The only way he can reconcile the contradictions at the heart of his Jewishness is to become a living contradictionothe thing itself and its opposite. The seeds of self-doubt were sown early on. In a flashback sequence, Danny’s Talmud teacher explains that God was testing Abraham by telling him to kill his son, but Danny insists that the story depicts God as a power-drunk madman who wants to make Jews afraid.
Since it deals with the origins and consequences of neo-Nazi violence, The Believer inevitably will be lumped together with Romper Stomper and American History X. A more appropriate and illuminating comparison, however, would be David Mamet’s Homicide, in which Joe Mantegna played a self-hating Jewish cop. A deserving winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Henry Bean’s film dares to confront and wrestle with taboo ideas, while never losing sight of the need to express them visually. As a scriptwriter with films such as Internal Affairs, Deep Cover, Mulholland Falls and Enemy of the State to his credit, it is no surprise that Bean’s dialogue and ideas are lucid and convincing. More surprising, perhaps, is the edgy realism created by cinematographer Jim Denault’s often hand-held camerawork, the kinetic energy of which is reinforced by composer Joel Diamond’s skilfully used score. Given the film’s angry, confrontational opening, it’s low-key ending is something of a surprise, a moving reconciliation that more than justifies Bean’s description of the film as a paean to Judaism. More surprising still is the fact that a film this intellectually challenging could have been made in America in the first place.U.S.A., 2001. Colour. Dolby stereo. 98 mins.