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Lost In Thought: Ryan Gosling wrestles with faith and fascism in 'The Believer.'

Shut Up, Danny

'The Believer' looks fearsome but is actually cerebral and more than a little comic

By Richard von Busack

THE STORY of a conservative Jew who becomes a fire-breathing Nazi is too much like a Mel Brooks conceit to be believed, but The Believer leads you to believe it. This talky yet often funny film appears to be about ultimate evil, but director/co-writer Henry Bean is actually skeptical of such ultimates (as we all should be). It's an allegorical film--not at all an exposé of the "Aryans" among us.

The protagonist, Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), is a devoted but quarrelsome New York student of the Torah who turns against his teachers and embraces Jew-hatred mostly because he loathes Jehovah's Old Testament cruelty. Being young and articulate, Danny comes to the attention of a pair of wealthy fascists (Billy Zane and Theresa Russell, compressing her lips into a thin line, as a good Brunhilda should). They groom Danny for the lecture circuit, figuring that he possesses the charisma to promote one particularly hard-to-sell political agenda.

Unfortunately, Danny's fellow Nazis, whom he meets at a summer camp, are intellectually lazy bruisers. So he retreats to the company of a masochistic maid, Carla (Summer Phoenix), who becomes entranced with Jewish lore. He helps her study, on the grounds that she ought to know her enemy. Actually, he can't get the faith out from under his skin: he sees its arbitrariness reflected in the cruel demands of fascism.

Except for a few pretty gratuitous fight scenes, the movie takes place on such an intellectual level I'm surprised it has been taken as inflammatory material that might launch a copycat audience out on a new pogrom. The flashbacks to a Nazi atrocity (tastefully handled) aren't as tough as the scene of Danny and his pack defiling a synagogue. Even in that desecration, Bean makes a prime sick joke: a fearful skinhead remembers what happened to the Nazis who mishandled Jewish sacred goods in the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I'd hate to see a brainy, amusing film dismissed because people fear it'll burn their eyes out, as the Ark of the Covenant did to Indiana Jones' enemies. Moviegoers understandably dreading a bad time will miss Gosling's witty, grand depiction of charismatic villainy. In that great Jewish movie The Big Lebowski, the converted Jew Walter (John Goodman) dreads a pack of self-proclaimed nihilists, considering them worst than actual Nazis: "At least Nazism is an ethos!" Danny's key problem is that he mistakes Nazism for nihilism. And he dreads Jews because he's correctly afraid they'll outargue him. Finally, Danny learns that not even death will allow him to escape the religious quarrels that he's been so unwilling to face with anything but fights or flights.

The Believer's questions of faith are completely entertaining even to this atheist. I don't care a button about God. However, I enjoy films about fanatics and The Believer is an example of what Paul Schrader's films would be like if he had a sense of humor. This love/hate relationship with the eternal is as compelling as any other turbulent love story.

The Believer (R; 98 min.), directed by Henry Bean, written by Marc Jacobson and Bean, photographed by Jim Denault and starring Ryan Gosling and Summer Phoenix, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the June 13-19, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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