The phrase "self-loathing Jew" is pregnant with provocative -- and unsettling -- meaning for Jews. The shared history of Judaism, of course, encompasses the ugly reality of anti-Semitism, with the Holocaust being its most deadly and horrific manifestation. For a people whose identity is partly tied to their having endured persecution and injustice, some Jews might sense a feeling of victimization that gnaws away at them, even while remaining proud of their cultural perseverance.
Or maybe I'm wrong. The roots of Jewish self-hatred are open to debate, of course, but the phenomenon is serious business. As a secular American Jew myself, I have seen its contradictions play out many times. Henry Bean's The Believer examines that dichotomy at its most extreme.
Before Half Nelson earned an Oscar nomination for Ryan Gosling, this gifted young actor gave a tour de force performance in 2001's The Believer. Here he is Danny Balint, a bright yeshiva-educated Orthodox Jew who has grown up only to become a venom-spewing neo-Nazi skinhead. Danny's contradictions are arresting, if more than a bit puzzling; and like the messiness of life itself, his rationalizations are too tortured to make much sense (thank God for that). But Danny Balint is a fascinating creation, and Gosling does an amazing job disappearing inside the character's skin.
Perhaps strangest of all, The Believer is loosely based on fact. In 1965, a Ku Klux Klan activist named Daniel Burros committed suicide hours after The New York Times reported he was born Jewish.
From that bizarre case, writer-director Henry Bean spins a story about a man struggling with reverence and repulsion. Danny Balint is the quintessential self-loathing Jew. Stalking the streets of New York City in a swastika-emblazoned T-shirt, he hooks up with a couple of pseudo-intellectual fascists, Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), who warn him that his Jew-hating shtick doesn't play anymore and is bad for business. Danny doesn't care; his anti-Semitism is all-consuming.
He extols killing Jews and, in a blistering interview with a New York Times reporter (A.D. Miles), spouts his gospel of hate with an articulate, almost seductive, fervor that is as frightening as it is captivating. In fact, Danny's rant is tripped up only when the reporter drops his bombshell: He knows Danny is Jewish. If the Times prints such slander, Danny tells the journalist, he will kill himself.
Not long afterwards, Danny and a band of fellow skinheads vandalize a local synagogue. While a guy urinates from the balcony and others scrawl swastikas on the walls, Danny bristles when the hooligans trample on the Torah. He takes the scroll home, lovingly repairs it and winds up practicing a Sieg Heil salute while shouting out Hebrew phrases. To say Danny is conflicted is putting it mildly.
Buoyed by a razor-sharp script and Gosling's incendiary performance, The Believer is powerful, but flawed. The fascist couple's presence in the narrative never really makes sense. Lina's daughter and Danny's quasi-girlfriend, Carla (Summer Phoenix), inexplicably immerses herself in Judaism. Why?
Engrossing and challenging, The Believer never received the exposure it deserved. Despite earning the Grand Jury prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, it failed to get wide release after it was bashed by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. That's what Bean gets for having screened the movie for Rabbi Cooper. Like the good book says, you reap what you sow.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen picture is sharp and detailed, beautifully preserving the naturalistic work of cinematographer Jim Denault.
Viewers can select Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Surround, both of which are fine for this dialogue-driven film. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
A 16-minute, 30-second conversation with director Henry Bean covers the waterfront, including The Believer's origins, reception and casting. He reveals the lengths the film crew went to in an effort to preserve the sanctity of the Torah during shooting.
The Sundance Channel's Anatomy of a Scene (29 minutes) is a thorough examination of the film, particularly the scene in which Danny repairs a desecrated Torah.
In addition, there are Palm Pictures previews for Sex and Lucia, The Last Minute and 1 Giant Leap.
A few story threads might go nowhere, but The Believer is, above all, an intense and provocative character-driven drama that makes American History X seem almost formulaic by comparison. It's not an easy film experience, but it's worth a look.