There are plenty of contradictory things that somehow co-exist in the world, but I bet that you would've thought that a Jewish Nazi (or a Nazi Jew) was an impossibility. Then comes along "The Believer", a film based on the real-life story of a member of the Ku Klux Klan who turned out to be a Jew--this Jewish Klansman stated that he would kill himself if "The New York Times" published an exposé about him, and he did just that when the newspaper revealed his background to the world. "The Believer" doesn't claim to address the facts of its real-life source, but it does venture into intellectually challenging ground as it pits the Jewish identity against anti-Jewish sentiments in the mind of one man.
In "The Believer", the Jewish Daniel Balint (Ryan Gosling) struts around New York City wearing a swastika-emblazoned shirt and beating up other Jews. He fraternizes with right-wingers, but nobody seems to know what to do with this articulate, raging man who is much smarter than the usual gangbanging skinhead and much more racist than the usual neo-fascist (neo-fascism being a political movement not interested in expressing extreme views on race matters). When alone, Balint ponders the mysteries of Judaism and his Jewish identity.
Balint sees the Jewish surrender to God's will as the source of Jewish suffering--after all, Jews throughout the centuries seem to seek avoiding fighting rather than defending their right to live. That God can be defined as "nothingness" doubly frustrates Balint--why are Jews submitting to "nothing", he asks. Isn't submitting to "nothing" an act of begging to be reduced to nothing by those who hate Jews? In a sense, he bullies and rants at other Jews in an effort to get them to fight back at forces threatening their uniqueness.
The makers of "The Believer" claim that Balint is both a Jew and a Nazi, but I think that the movie's best case for Daniel Balint is that Judaism and the Jewish culture don't provide him with all of the answers to his complex questions. Most of the film plays as a portrait of a youth unsatisfied with what his identity and his faith give him as tools for living. I don't think that Balint has an identity crisis--he knows that he's Jewish. However, he resents the apparently nonsensical contradictions of Jewish teachings, so he becomes a contradiction himself in response to his rabbis' refusals to answer his queries. He is frustrated with his community's reluctance to look beyond the obvious, so he turns to Nazi-style offensives as a way of provoking Jews to think about what it means to be Jewish. His best argument is probably that the Zionist movement used fascist tactics in order to realize the state of Israel. Of course, when he makes that claim, he is greeted by the usual, "Oh, how can you say that--without Zionism, there wouldn't be a Jewish homeland." This, of course, is Balint's point--that Zionism found a way to make Jews strong in the face of annihilation.
Much credit for the project has to go to Henry Bean, the director and writer of the film. However, the movie really wouldn't be as good as it is without Ryan Gosling's ferocious performance. On paper, the role of Daniel Balint seems to be a variation on Edward Norton's character in "American History X", but Gosling's conflicted facial expressions reveal the inner turmoil of someone struggling against Judaic passivity. In Gosling's expressive eyes, you can see that the thing that he most loves--his Jewish identity--is something that does not satisfy him on an intellectual level. Pay attention to the sequence showing Balint and his thug buddies desecrating a synagogue. When the other skinheads begin to damage the synagogue's Torah, Gosling (as Balint) makes an impassioned speech about respecting the document, even as he's making other anti-Jewish remarks.
What "The Believer" offers in terms of compelling characterizations, it lacks in terms of narrative momentum. It gets a bit repetitive watching Balint rant and rail against everything that displeases him, and the little vignettes that the script offers don't really add up to much. Also, Balint seems to be the only character in the movie capable of carrying on his/her end of a conversation, so we end up with a 100-minute monologue that isn't very satisfying because Balint isn't interested in answering his own questions. The character seems to think that asking pointed questions is enough when what he needs to do is to figure things out for himself.
Since the movie was shot with a small budget, the film stock that was used for "The Believer" wasn't of the best grade. Therefore, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer exhibits the source material's noticeable amount of grain. This isn't too big of a problem other than during dimly-lit scenes, when things can look a bit "fuzzy". The print that was used for the video transfer seems to be in very good condition, and colors are naturalistic and well-reproduced.
There is a Dolby Digital 5.1 English track on the DVD, though for some reason, the disc defaults to the DD 2.0 stereo English track when you play the movie without selecting the 5.1 track. At any rate, the DD 5.1 track is fairly robust since the music score gives the front speakers and the subwoofer plenty of moments to shine. Dialogue is always clear despite the loud music. However, the rear channels don't have much to do. This is understandable since "The Believer" is a small-scale drama, not an action extravaganza.
Optional English and Spanish subtitles support the audio.
The DVD offers an informative audio commentary by Henry Bean and producer Christopher Roberts. The two speak from the beginning of the movie to its end while providing many details about the production, the facts that informed the making of the movie, etc. It's interesting listening to the two filmmakers explain their reasoning behind their decisions when faced with such a controversial subject matter.
The Sundance Channel's "Anatomy of a Scene: ‘The Believer'" is basically a making-of featurette, though it's a lot more substantive than the made-for-premium-cable garbage that is usually assembled for brainless movies from big studios. There's also a video interview with Henry Bean, though what he says in the interview is largely covered by the audio commentary and the "Anatomy of a Scene" piece. Finally, there is the film's theatrical trailer as well as previews of other Palm Pictures releases. (Palm Pictures movies are distributed on DVD via Lions Gate.)
When used in a computer, the DVD provides weblinks to various websites.
A glossy booklet provides chapter listings, film production credits, and a statement from Henry Bean.
The main problem that "The Believer" suffers is that, while it's not at all difficult for an intelligent viewer to see what's wrong with Daniel Balint's line of reasoning, the movie also doesn't have someone as articulate as Balint opposing him. The other Jews in the movie cling to their faith and their identity blindly (which, I'll admit, may be the "right" thing to do for the devout). The Nazis, skinheads, fascists, and other right-wingers in the story aren't capable of much reflection, either. The rest of society, represented by a reporter, doesn't seem to care much about the issues that Balint does other than the character's contradictory beliefs. What we have, then, is a well-made film that seethes with eloquent rage that lacks enough brains to focus its anger or its ideas.