IT MAY NEVER BE the right time to release The Believer—a provocative, violent movie about a young Jewish man who is also a Nazi skinhead. Certainly its showing at the Toronto International Film Festival—set for Sept. 11, 2001—wasn’t the moment. And pushing back its official spring release, when emotions were still raw, was equally understandable. But now, despite ongoing horrors in the Middle East and an increase in violence targeted at Jews in North America, the controversial film is slowly being rolled out across the United States and Canada. The question that raises is as provocative as the movie itself. At this time, is it dangerous—or pertinent—to release a film that demands sympathy for a Jewish protagonist attracted to fascist movements, who beats up yeshiva students, spouts antiSemitic invective and plots to kill members of his community?
I vote for pertinent. While it’s one of the year’s most powerful films, with an explosive performance by 21-year-old Ryan Gosling of Cornwall, Ont., it’s not sensational or offensive. In his directorial debut, screenwriter Henry Bean (Internal Affairs, Enemy of the State), a Jewish New Yorker, argues it’s poindess to hate another
group—we all hate our own more deeply than any outsider can. “The things that matter most to us, we love and hate—parents, lover, country,” says Bean. “You want to separate yourself from them or you’re dependent. So we end up having a lot of hateful feelings indistinguishable from love. If you can acknowledge the hate, without doing something terrible, then the love becomes richer, fuller and better.” But the character Bean creates, Danny Balint, does terrible things. In a flashback, we see him as a bright yeshiva student, who upsets his class by insisting God is a “power-drunk madman.” Now, in his teens, he’s really lashing out—hanging around New York with ignorant skinheads, having violent sex, planting bombs. Meanwhile, his anti-Semitic spiels—strengthened by his intimate knowledge of Judaism— make him attractive to a neo-fascist movement led by Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell). And his pained intensity makes him attractive to her daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix). Soon Danny realizes that he remains drawn to the religion. Even as he continues to work with the fascists, he begins to wear a Jewish shawl under his clothes and teaches Carla Hebrew from the Torah. It’s a doomed double life.
The film’s success rests in Gosling’s hands—or, more specifically, in the endless close-ups of his face, in which he conveys both tenderness and brutality. “In the first scene where Danny beats up a kid,” says Bean, “I figured you’re just going to hate him there, and then I’ll teach you to like him somewhere else. But Ryan was able to convey the anguish of what he’s doing so convincingly that, without the audience even realizing it, they are already sympathizing with him.”
Gosling was the last of 160 actors who auditioned for the role. “Ryan looked like a surfer,” recalls Bean. “He was a long, skinny kid with all this blond hair coming out from under a cap. Somehow he conveyed the scene as if it was coming from deep inside of him. I think it’s partly because he’s a dancer, and his body is extremely expressive.” Gosling, who got his start singing and dancing in the 1990s version of the All New Mickey Mouse Club, isn’t Jewish; he was raised a Mormon. “He understood,” says Bean, “how religion makes demands, how to observe and sacrifice.” And the actor believes the film isn’t really about being Jewish—or a skinhead. “You can make any version of this film, a Catholic version,” says Gosling. “It’s about somebody living a contradiction.”
Not everyone agrees. Last year, even before Sept. 11, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a prominent American Jewish organization, called the film “a primer for anti-Semitism.” That scared away distributors who had shown interest in The Believer, a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner. In the end, the film played first on television, on the U.S. cable channel Showtime. For that reason, The Believer and Gosling won’t be eligible for Academy Awards. But Gosling will get his chance. With this one role, he has gone from unknown teen TV actor to indemand, rising movie star. Recently, he portrayed a homicidal kid in Murder By Numbers, opposite Sandra Bullock— they’re now dating. Next, he’ll play a teen who murders an autistic kid in The United States of Leland, opposite Kevin Spacey. Whether or not it’s the right time for The Believer, it certainly is for Gosling.
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