Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Believer: Grade A


The Believer (2001)

Ryan Gosling, Summer Phoenix; Writer and Director Henry Bean.

A Jewish boy in contemporary New York defies his Rabbi, questioning whether the teachings of the Torah are meaningful. He accuses God of being needy, moody, and selfish and defies God to strike him dead on the spot if this is not so. Fast forward to the young man in his twenties (Gosling) who has become a Nazi skinhead and spews hatred for all Jews, denies the holocaust and reveres Hitler. He and his thug buddies go around intimidating Jewish shop owners and plotting to blow up a synagogue. He becomes an articulate anti-semitic spokesman among his friends and even for a shadowy political fascist group in the city. But as each anti-semitic plot and incident develops, we see him showing thoughtful reverence, almost longing, for the Torah, for the Hebrew language, for Jewish ritual and custom, and for an integrated self. He becomes increasingly confused about his self-identity but remains oblivious to his own self-hatred. In the end, he makes a dramatic choice that is nevertheless driven more by pragmatics than by any insight or conversion of belief.

This picture is a close remake of the 1998 American History X that starred Edward Norton in the lead role, and it is just about as good. Gosling is a major acting genius and carries the role as well as Norton did his. This film is more psychologically nuanced, showing the character’s inner conflict extremely well, whereas American History X was more external and obvious. However, for this movie to work, you have to accept the almost psychotic self-hatred and identity confusion of the main character, which is a leap of imagination. The movie does not even try to explain the development of the character’s confused thinking, and the flashbacks to childhood do not help in that, so we just have to take it as it is. Once you get past that however, the acting is superb, and the script excellent – not one false note. Here is another case where I was rewarded for going into the stacks of older films when I could not find an attractive current release.

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