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TV Review: Anti-Semitism harsh topic, but 'The Believer' goes deep

Friday, March 15, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

On the surface, "The Believer" (8 p.m. Sunday, Showtime) is the tale of a self-loathing Jew turned neo-Nazi. But at its core, the film explores issues of faith, belief and identity. It's an arresting, unpredictable film that won numerous awards last year at film festivals (it won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year) but found scant interest in Hollywood for a theatrical release.

 
 
'The Believer'

WHEN: 8 p.m. Sunday on Showtime

   
 

Showtime snapped up the R-rated film and scheduled its premiere for last fall, but bumped it back after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 due to the depiction of several attempted bombings and its harsh subject matter. Some viewers won't be able to slog their way through the anti-Semitism displayed in "The Believer," but it's worth watching this disturbing film to the end.

Ryan Gosling ("Young Hercules") stars as Danny Balint, who, as a 12-year-old yeshiva student, argued with his rabbis and classmates.

"Fear of God makes you afraid of everything," young Danny says. "All the Jews are good at is being afraid ... I see [God] as the power-drunk madman that he is, and we're supposed to worship such a deity? I say never!"

Flash forward in time and 22-year-old Danny has become a neo-Nazi skinhead who says the word Jew conjures up the same feeling as, "when a rat runs across the floor. You want to crush it."

This film has some true ugliness, and hate speech is just the start.

As hateful as he is, Danny is equally intelligent and articulate. He's no numbskull hick, hating for sport. He joins with members of a neo-fascist movement and falls for Carla (Summer Phoenix), daughter of one of the group's leaders.

All the while Danny hides his own Jewish heritage until his past begins to tug at him and he starts to lead a contradictory double life that he can't possibly sustain.

"The Believer" is based loosely on the true story of a young Jewish man arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1965. The film is particularly hard to take in the early going as Danny harasses Jews on the street and in a restaurant.

Once tough, violent Danny is forced into sensitivity training and begins to speak his mind, "The Believer" begins to blossom as the portrait of a confused young man comes into focus. When his skinhead friends desecrate a synagogue, Danny joins in until they begin to unroll a Torah. Planting a bomb is easy for Danny, but watching his buddies touch and tear the Torah is not.

Gosling is a powerful presence in "The Believer." He's capable of making the audience despise him and feel sympathy for him at the same time. Not, mind you, sympathy for his deeds, but for the contradictions swirling in his mind.

Though the Carla character's interest in religion rings a bit false and seems forced, it's probably necessary to help push Danny down a path to redemption.

Written and directed by Henry Bean ("Enemy of the State," "Internal Affairs"), "The Believer" is one of the most thought-provoking films to make its debut on premium cable in ages. While HBO and Showtime often tackle hot-button issues, it's not often such a complex exploration of religious beliefs gets this kind of exposure.


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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