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GREAT MOVIES GUYS MAY NEVER SEE -- The Believer (2001)
As a member of the religion known as Judaism, one thing I know is that the thing that links all Jews, liberal or conservative, is the element of debate. Rabbis debate non-stop. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews debate. And people misinterpret this and hold Jews to stereotypes for it. In the case of the middle passage between Europe and Asia following the Black Plague but preceding Christopher Columbus, the Arabs thought that when a Jew argued with them over the price of their services that they were trying to take their manhood, strip the title of salesman from them, when all the Jew meant to do was engage in a debate. With the prize in this case being a price that wasn't highway freaking robbery. Debate is the secret to the success of Judaism, and it is external -- debating with others. Because if there's one thing that can be very dangerous, it's when the debate becomes INTERNAL. Most religions have reverends, pastors, clerics, people who you go and see in places of worship who help you interpret it so that there is no debate. Then you can operate with a clear mind. In Judaism, there are deliberate open-ended questions. In other religions, the unknown is presented in black-and-white. In Judaism, the known is made grey. If there is no heaven or hell, then is being holy a matter of being practical? In the wake of tragedies like the Holocaust, Crusades, Egyptian slavery, suffering has made us strong, but have you really won a battle when you've laid down your arms or died? These are the kinds of issues that Ryan Gosling's Danny Baliant wrestles with throughout the course of his breakthrough film in 2001 called "The Believer", a film that was banned like Huckleberry Finn by synagogues across the country, a film that is so pro-Jewish it seems horrendously anti-semitic. As Danny asks these questions and debates what he feels are the hypocrises of his faith, he is so eloquent and passionate that there's a danger "The Believer" could convert even the most kindred, loving soul into a Jew hater. He is filmed close-up with his face cocked towards the upper-right-hand corner of the screen like Adolf Hitler addressing his minions. In a right wing America, the Jew is not someone who merely thinks differently, he is viewed as a dangerous adversary. One who engages in stock fraud and mind manipulation and wants to rob them for everything they have, even though -- despite not being able to eat meat with milk -- you don't see one attempt at trying to ban the rest of America from eating it if they so please. And should a film like the Believer be a top-ten selection in their movie bins, I wouldn't be surprised. So it is my attempt here to point out that this is not anti-Jewish propaganda, but in fact, the absolute opposite.
In the 60s existed a kid named Danny Baliant, a thoughtful, tough Jew whose father had only a few months to live. Worse then that, his father appears to be surrendering to his fate (not taking his medication and continuing to smoke). When his father dies, Danny knows that there's a possibility there won't be anything at all. No heaven, no afterlife, no rewards, nothing. This is how it comes to be that Danny -- for the first half of the film -- is a nasty, vicious Nazi prick.
The Believer is about how Danny reverts back to his belief in Judaism, takes out the most anti-semitic scum in his gang, and saves dozens of Jews in the process. All the while giving most of the people around him the wrong idea of what he believes and intends. It will make sense...I think. Let's see if I can describe this properly...
In the first ten minutes of the Believer, in addition to meeting his dad and sister, we see Danny beat the living daylights out of this innocent Jewish teenage boy basically BECAUSE he won't fight back despite his constant demands for him to do so, then he joins this faschist movement led by a prick couple who think their soft-spokenness makes up for their revolting world view, then he starts a relationship with a girl there (River Phoenix's younger sister, now grown up and looking fine), and then he goes and has a meeting with a reporter from the New York Times who was at one of the movement's meetings and wants to learn more about him.
Baliant is asked what he means when he said "the modern world is a Jewish disease". He goes into a whole spiel where he links a Jewish man's willingness to give cunnilingus to his willingness to undermine all realms of traditional life they enter en route to destroying the world due to some kind of fictional inability to assert himself like a man (with missionary-style penetration or fair business practices). If that seems messed up and wildly anti-semitic, Danny's just getting started. He links the idea of Jews not believing in heaven to the idea that they want to destroy life itself. They want all of us to have nothing and exist in nothingness, Danny believes, because they believe in nothing. He cites Marx, Freud and Einstein's brain childs of communism, the Odephius complex, the atomic bomb and the theory of relativity as evidence of this. He cites the idea of Jews being "wanderers" with no roots and no attachments as a reason it's so easy for them to piss on roots and attachments. And he advocates the killing of a prominent Jewish banker who was an ambassador to Europe, who he feels is the ultimate representation of this phenomenon.
The girl he has a relationship with, we realize, is suicidal. And she thinks nothingness just might be the best high a person can experience. And so Danny's interpretation of Judaism and the angry way he talks about it makes her think it might be a great idea to become Jewish!
Danny wants to use the faschist movement to make an impact, so he joins a retreat with a bunch of hateful skinheads including 1) a bully Holocaust denier who doesn't know anything about Jews, 2) a sharpshooting expert who picks up on Danny's thorough knowledge of Jews to be evidence he might be one 3) another bully who attacks him when he first arrives, who Danny THROTTLES, and who makes the sharpshooter think he's got someone in the group who might challenge him as the leader, 4) a short demolition expert who admits he could never fight someone hand-to-hand like Danny and 5) a big scary pig reminiscent of the fat guy from American History X who's more of a nasty jokester then a real monster and 6) a guy who's more muscular and fit and likes military history and wants more than anything to see a good show.
Danny ends up going with some of these guys to a Jewish restaurant and bullying the waiter, resulting in a fight that puts them in a sensitivity training course at an old folks home with real Holocaust survivors. One of the older European women tells a story about how her sister was killed in front of her because she wouldn't submit sexually to a Nazi guard, resulting in prick number #5 above to turn and say "who'd want to f*ck her anyway?" to a round of laughter and a warning from the program director to knock it off or they'll do their thirty days in jail instead. It leads to a key moment in the movie where a man talks about how his three year old son was killed in front of him. Danny gets up and says "what did you do?" The other survivors point out that there was nothing he could have done, that he would have been killed in two seconds. Danny goes "so he's dead! Big deal! He's worse then dead now, he's a piece of sh*t! Look at him!" and the woman challenges him with that, saying "you know you wouldn't have done nothing either. Millions of people went to the camps and succombed to the same fate. Here in this rich spoiled country it is so easy to imagine oneself a hero." And so for the rest of the movie, as other events go on, Danny is plagued by the imagery of this man's story. He tries to imagine what he'd do in that situation. Would he have the nerve to gut that murdering storm trooper? He imagines himself as the father...and then imagines himself as the guard. And when he imagines himself as the guard, he changes. His Nazi beliefs are eliminated. No matter how much he talks, how much he believes such rancid things, he can't bring himself to be like a Nazi stormtrooper.
He gets irritated as they go to a synagogue to vandalize it, and nobody he's with knows ANYTHING about Jews. They're spouting off hateful views without even knowing why. He watches them massacre a Torah and implores them to leave it alone, and the others think he means that the Torah is like the devil's weapon. Like voodoo. That it will curse them. But Danny can't bring himself to violate the Torah. He collects it, wraps it up, brings it home, and gives the girl he's with a free Hebrew lesson and explains why the Torah is so special.
His speeches to other members of the movement then become just as impassioned, but less and less abrasive. While the first one Danny gives us is specific in its hatred, the second one is simply "We hate them because we hate them. Because it's an axiom of civilization. Man hates Jews like he fears death, longs for women and loves his children. There's no REASON we hate them." And then the next one goes "If you want to eliminate Jews, we have to love them. We have to bring them into our hearts. It's the only way the so-called chosen people will assimilate, and once they assimilate, their special status will vanish"
The faschists kick him out of the movement for this speech.
Danny by this time, in addition to saving the Torah, hating and turning on the skinheads and teaching his girlfriend about Judaism, then goes to a Jewish bookstore...and runs into an old friend from his childhood, another Jewish male who is married to this FINE Jewish girl they grew up with named Mariam. They invite him to temple, are happy to see him again, and when he gets there, amidst familiar territory that he's happy to be part of, encounters another kid from their childhood who knows what Danny has turned into, and they end up debating Israel. Danny claims that they're now talking about Jews who are no different than storm troopers, while the kid claims that if they seem that way, it's only out of self-defense against a continent around them that won't stop trying to wipe them off the map. The Israelis are undefeated in battle because they HAVE to be.
As they're leaving the temple, Mariam tells Danny that she knows about the leader of that faschist movement Lena, and that the place is crawling with FBI informants. She knows because she works for the DA's office. And the New York Times reporter who interviewed him was only one of the many who are there and who are learning more about him and the movement by the day. Be careful Danny, she says.
Then the sharpshooter kills that Jewish banker who Danny was talking about at the earlier meeting. And Lena and the faschists have no qualms with telling concerned law enforcement that it was Danny's idea.
So Danny now is pressed by Mariam. He freely admits that it was his idea to kill that banker. Mariam says "you really want to kill Jews? You want to kill me?"
Of course Danny doesn't.
"How about we say that you were infiltrating them the whole time?" she poses.
This angers Danny. He is thoroughly disgusted by Mariam's perceived disregard for the truth and willing to cover it up. She says "I don't care about the truth, I care about you."
Spoilers from this point, but it pretty much makes it clear why synagogues would have it banned...
Danny and the explosions expert go and rig the synagogue where Mariam and her husband go. After all this, Danny is following every emphatic step to become whole and Jewish again with an insane step back. Until finally he imagines himself being the stormtrooper and killing the son of that man at the sensitivity seminar. He can't do it. He goes back in the synagogue and Mariam's husband is trying to get him to be quiet as Danny's telling his suicidal girlfriend the situation. He counters back "hey, shut the f*ck up!" But he gets everyone out of the synagogue, lets them know there's a bomb, all the while staying put to die in the bombing.
And all the while...his suicidal girl contemplates joining him but is pulled out to safety by the others before she can.
And so the place explodes, Danny dies, and there's a sequence where Danny is rushing to climb an infinite set of staircases while his Hebrew teacher tells him "don't you know? There's nothing up there". Danny spent countless hours debating Judaism, never once coming to grips with his warped interpretation of it. He didn't contemplate the important things, all he did was focus on hating and resenting the fate of his father. Until it was too late.
"The Believer" was hated by the right people every bit as much as it might be loved by the wrong ones.