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Believe It or Not 

At the height of its modern infamy during the killing days of the 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan had an unusual member in one of its robe-clad klaverns: a Jew who admired Hitler and therefore despised and advocated violence against his own people. As a young boy in Queens, Daniel Burros was a devoted student of the Torah and a standout scholar in Hebrew school. But as an adult he drifted into right-wing groups and ultimately the Klan. Then, after being outed as a Jew by The New York Times, he went to a friend's house, borrowed a gun and killed himself. Fascinated by Burros' story, writer-director Henry Bean has re-imagined it as the tale of a contemporary young man who has traded in his yarmulke for the tattoos and muscle shirts of a skinhead. The Believer won the Grand Jury Award at Sundance in 2001 but was considered too controversial by distributors and never received a national release.

Ryan Gosling stars as Danny Balint, a highly educated but explosively angry young Jewish man who makes his living as a fork-lift operator but evidently lives only to spew racist bile. His world view accepts the old Nazi notion that Aryans are superior beings and that Jews should be exterminated. We meet him as he viciously torments a young Jewish student on a New York subway and then trails him out to the street where he administers a cruel, utterly unprovoked beating all the while taunting his victim for not fighting back. Early on it becomes clear that Balint hates his own ethnicity in at least significant part because he deems Jews cowards for failing to resist the Holocaust.

Recently, Balint has joined a neo-fascist organization headed by Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell). These two murkily drawn characters seem to think that fascism is the best way to guarantee order and protect the privileges of the rich. But they are actually opposed to connecting racist appeals to their proselytizing until they see the galvanizing effect Balint's race-baiting has on his fellow skinheads. Their decision to recruit him as a spokesman and fundraiser for their organization makes little sense because they seem hopeful of attracting supporters among the very sort of people who would be made uncomfortable by Balint's venomous focus on race rather than economic advantage. But then we never understand what Zampf and Moebius think they're up to or how they think they might go about achieving their ends.

The film has other narrative deficiencies as well. Moebius has a sultry daughter named Carla (Summer Phoenix) who sneaks around behind her mother's back and sleeps with Zampf, supposedly Mom's boyfriend. Carla is a verifiable sick puppy. The first night she gets in involved with Balint, her come-on line is "Hurt me." And she's not kidding. The next morning she wakes with a cut lip and a dreamy look on her face. Later on when she frustrates Balint in a discussion about Judaism, he inquires if she wants a punch in the mouth. "Okay," she agrees after a short moment's contemplation. Their relationship produces one scene so astonishingly disgusting, I'll spare all details. But I haven't a single clue how we're to understand the sado-masochism involved here as otherwise related to the film's narrative.

Flashback passages show a 12-year-old Balint arguing with his Hebrew school teacher. The child knows his lessons, but he's already hostile to the whole idea of faithfulness to God. Focusing on Yahweh's demand that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, Balint judges God a capricious bully and decides to defy God rather than surrender to divine will. All of this is interesting enough, but the film never suggests where it comes from. The only evidence we have about Balint's family life suggests that he hails from a loving home. Even as an adult he maintains a comfortable, caring relationship with his Jewish father (Ronald Guttman).

As an adult Balint prides himself on standing up to his enemies, determined to inflict pain even at the price of suffering it. You could easily imagine him joining the Israeli army, but he claims that Israelis aren't really Jews. The cause for the weirdness of his spin on things is nowhere explained. In his various diatribes, Balint says provocative things about the "Jewish personality" and its (alleged, anyway) propensity for self-contempt. I know little of these things save for the fact that Balint seems to exemplify the very qualities he despises. The things he says about an entire people are contemptible, but I still don't understand this film's being regarded as too controversial to release. Balint is such an obvious head case, he provides the antidote for his venom in the contradiction of his own person.

If there's a reason to see this movie, it's for the ferocity of Gosling's performance which will recall and stands well beside Edward Norton's similar turn in American History X.

click to enlarge Neo-Nazi skinhead Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) - ponders the teachings he once studied in Henry - Bean's The Believer, screening at this - week's New Orleans Jewish Film Festival at the CAC.
  • Neo-Nazi skinhead Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) ponders the teachings he once studied in Henry Bean's The Believer, screening at this week's New Orleans Jewish Film Festival at the CAC.


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