The Believer (2001)

This film really pushes: a based-on-fact character study about Daniel Balint (Ryan Gosling), a young Jewish man whose argumentative engagement with the Torah study leads him to become a self-denying hate-monger. Daniel hassles speccy Jews on the subway (the youth he picks on looks like the younger self we meet in flashbacks), wears a swastika t-shirt and SS badge, and embarrassingly becomes the young intellectual star of a fascist movement spearheaded by Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell). It's no surprise that the fascists we meet are smooth hypocrites or inadequate thugs, but Daniel's agony is exacerbated when he realises that his newfound allies are completely twisted - Zampf is bedding Lina and her strange daughter Carla (Summer Phoenix). After a brawl in a kosher restaurant, the boot boys are sentenced to sensitivity training involving a seminar with Jewish holocaust survivors: one of Daniel's pals comes out with holocaust denial platitudes and he rounds on the dolt, insisting that fascists ought to be proud of their genocides. As he becomes more and more Nazi, Daniel paradoxically becomes more and more a Jew, willing to plant a bomb in a synagogue but horrified when his comrades abuse the Torah, giving Hebrew lessons to Carla (a masochist who answers 'do you want a smack in the mouth?' with 'yes') and finally drawn back into the arguments that got him into trouble at school (a debate about Abraham and Isaac).

Gosling gets a break-out role as the articulate skinhead, and delivers complex, challenging, difficult speeches by writer-director Henry Bean with force, bulling through confrontations with box clever arguments and full-on physicality. Everyone else - with the marginal exception of Carla, who rebels against her fascist background and gravitates towards becoming an Orthodox Jewish woman - is part of the furniture, only in the film for Daniel to bounce ideas off. Bean has a knack for writing arguments, especially a discourse on fascism, violence and Israel which erupts at the back of a synagogue as Daniel returns to his church. It's a deliberately rough-looking film, sometimes weirdly out of sync, and cannily holds back on the 'exploitation' Romper Stomper elements, stressing an odd mix of the intellectual, the philosophical and the religious in its analysis both of Judaism ('Jews want abstraction') and fascism ('this has always been a romantic movement').
KIM NEWMAN

First published here.


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