The Believer

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The Believer

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Seventeen months have passed since Henry Bean's challenging, incendiary drama The Believer won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival, during which time the film has been held in theatrical limbo, passed over by every studio boutique until finally making its debut (after further delays) on Showtime. Inspired in part by a 1965 New York Times piece exposing a KKK member as Jewish (the man killed himself upon publication), Bean uses the provocative premise of a Jewish neo-Nazi to make serious points about the roots of anti-Semitism and the torments of spiritual commitment. It's a testament to the film's power—and the industry's cowardice—that The Believer was punished for confronting these ideas head-on, proving again that religion may be the greatest remaining taboo in American cinema. The most extreme in a line of contradictory antiheroes from Bean's screenplays, including the one-two punch of 1990's Internal Affairs and 1992's Deep Cover, Ryan Gosling plays a character whose intense feeling for the Jewish faith has collapsed on itself. Much like Edward Norton in the comparable American History X, Gosling isn't the average neo-Nazi thug, but a natural and charismatic leader who turns to hate out of intellectual curiosity and a thirst for moral purpose. Fueled by a perception of his people as eternally weak and ineffectual, Gosling gets involved with a nascent underground Fascist movement led by Billy Zane and Theresa Russell, leading the call for violent activism against Jewish power brokers and synagogues. But his principles are tested during a court-ordered session in sensitivity training, where he listens to a Holocaust survivor tell the story of how his 3-year-old son died at the hands of a German soldier. Bean tacks on a peculiar romance with Zane and Russell's masochistic daughter Summer Phoenix, but it only distracts from Gosling's gripping personal journey, which is too internalized to have room for a partner. In an unsteady turn as first-time director, Bean clutters the drama with awkward flashbacks, fantasy sequences, and peripheral characters that never quite come to life, orbiting listlessly around a much brighter star. But Gosling's commanding performance makes sense of the script's outrageous paradoxes, suggesting the forces at play within a man capable of ransacking a synagogue while demanding a sacred Torah scroll go untouched. Of the few explicitly religious films produced each year, most are either genteel or apocalyptic, promoting a spiritual agenda without questioning the ideas at its core. If nothing else, The Believer trusts that faith can not only withstand a little skepticism, but also gather strength and meaning from it.

Filed Under: Film

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