Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:01 pm 
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You better believe this is a great movie

As 'The Believer' begins we see Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) track down a yeshiva student, follow him off the New York subway, and beat him up. Soon thereafter we learn that Danny himself was a yeshiva student. He's a Jew who has become a Nazi skinhead. The movie follows this paradoxical and crazy situation to its violent conclusion. Along the way this movie challenges us emotionally and intellectually as few movies do. This smart Sam Fuller-eque shocker about prejudice and provocateurs not only examines anti-Semitism, but also considers Jewish self-hatred, the role of Jews in history, the nature of the Jewish God ("a power-drunk madman" and a "conceited bully,' the yeshiva Danny calls Him) and man's relationship to that God. It's a study of bigotry, but of a lot more. It's so bold emotionally and intellectually that it's exhilarating to watch, and sometimes it's so disturbing that I saw people unable to face the screen.

It's commendable that anyone in this unthinking country could dare to make a movie that's this daring and forthright about ideas - seeking to shock but for an intellectual purpose. Needless to say it's Ryan Gosling's intensity and fierce conviction that make the paradox of a Jew turned Nazi work for us - even after, as the narrative winds down, it stops working for him. Unlike Edward Norton in the relatively shallow 'American History X,' to whom he's being compared, Gosling doesn't get in the way of the dialogue by calling attention to his acting, yet he IS the movie.

People tend to differ over Summer Phoenix's performance as his girlfriend. I don't know why. I think it's thoroughly real. Her own family's cult background may have given her emotional material to draw on. I can see no flaws in Theresa Russell and Billy Zane as the fascist organizer couple, either. They are just like leftist couples I have met. The trouble is that these characters can't compete with the focus on Danny and with Gosling's searing performance. We can't take our eyes off Gosling, and I don't think writer/director Henry Bean could either. Consequently he didn't give the other characters quite enough space in the script or on the screen to flesh out the movie's human, non-intellectual side. Danny's skinhead buddies are menacing, but not very three-dimensional.

But it's a thrilling experience to see a movie about ideas that makes them a matter of life and death yet keeps their complexity. The paradox of Danny's existence never becomes pat. He's in constant flux. Gosling plays Danny as a young man who can beat people bloody, and then go into a living room and dazzle another group of people with his intellect, and he's equally convincing both times. Danny's violent attacks on Jewishness aren't simplified and stereotypical: they're real challenges that provoke thought.

This is the best independent film to be seen this year; it blows the competition out of the water as it did last year at Sundance. But it also blew away the distributors whom September 11 made even more timid than usual. It took ten months for 'The Believer' to go into limited theatrical release and its prior appearance on Showtime has robbed Ryan Gosling of the chance of an Oscar nomination.

This is America. A relatively unconvincing movie like 'American History X' got wide distribution, good publicity, and an Oscar nomination for its star. This considerably more thoughtful, committed - at times downright brilliant - movie won't get any of that. It's too intelligent and too outspoken and knows too well whereof it speaks. Even our open minded Thumbs Up TV guy feels like it might need to be censored!

I didn't know till this movie that Jews have actually become Nazis and Klansmen, but I wasn't surprised to learn that filmmaker Henry Bean is a conservative Jew from Philadelphia. The conviction and validity of this movie come from knowing what Danny knows, from feeling the issues as viscerally as only a Jew can - and from daring to speak out loud thoughts and feelings that are usually kept private.

The brilliant yeshiva boy's love/hate relationship with Judaism leads him to excel in sophistry. This is in evidence when Danny tells a roomful of rich fascists that they must love Jews because Jews are 'a people who will not take yes for an answer' and that accepting Jews will eliminate Jews' reason for being and force them to assimilate. Bigotry is based on ignorance but Danny argues that you must know your enemies to hate them truly. When he leads an invasion of an empty synagogue, he's shocked to realize that his skinhead buddies don't know what it means to desecrate the Torah.

The movie subjects Jewish identity to cruel scrutiny. Danny denies that Israelis are Jews because they are no longer wanderers, they 'have soil.' Why and how and in what sense, the movie asks, are Jews 'the Chosen People'? Are they cowards because they let themselves go to the death camps? Was victimization a preconditioned choice? Could the man whose child was speared with a Nazi bayonet have fought back? Danny sneers at the Holocaust deniers as missing the point of anti-Semitism, which, for him, a self-hating Jew, is that Jews are weak and don't fight back. Jewish sufferings make him weep with rage. These are issues that are painful to confront. In this movie they hit you one after another with gut-wrenching force.

Such movies don't come along very often. I wish my father, who loved thoughtful movies, sought unsuccessfully to be a Believer all his life, and was famously ambivalent about Jews, spouting anti-Semitic ideas but having Jewish colleagues as best friends, could have seen 'The Believer.' Like Danny, my father suffered from massive denial, and was deeply intellectual and deeply conflicted. Like Danny, when he embraced bigotry and its practitioners he found himself in ignorant and unworthy company. This film speaks to everyone, if they'll listen.


June 18, 2002

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