Spiritual Review: The Believer, a drama on DVD

RATING:  4.5 Hearts – Excellent

Okay, okay.  So I’m a big Ryan Gosling fan.  In fact, my primary reason for viewing The Believer is because I wanted to see all of Gosling’s work.  When I noticed that The Believer won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, that sealed the deal, and I got even more excited about the prosect of seeing it.  Henry Bean co-wrote and directed The Believer in 2001, which is loosely based on the real-life story of Daniel Burros.  Back in the 1960’s Burros became an American Nazi party member and a leader of the Klu Klux Klan, but he shot and killed himself after a NY Times reporter revealed his Jewish heritage.

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The Believer uses anti-semitism to explore love and hate and to show how love and hate get all confused based on fundamental beliefs about God. It also demonstrates how our beliefs about God play a direct role in determining our life and death experience. Director Bean frames The Believer with the recurring theme of the Biblical story of Abraham. Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice and kill Isaac, his son.  But why must he do this?  Does God want us to kill ourselves and others as a sign of faith, devotion, love and obedience?  Does killing self or others make you happy?  Is God just on a power trip?  Do we have the intelligence and free will to override God and guide ourselves if His direction doesn’t make sense?  The Believer reminds us that Jesus was an enlightened Jew who followed God’s will and who allowed himself to be sacrificed and killed to express his love of humanity.  Maybe self-sacrifice is the ultimate path to enlightenment. 

The story is told from the perspective of Daniel Balint, a 20-something neo-Nazi skinhead who denies his Jewish roots and talks incessantly about his desire to kill a Jew.  We see Daniel intimidating and tormenting a meek and bookish Jewish man.  We hear him ranting about how we should hate Jews simply because they’re Jews.  We watch him join an underground anti-semitic fascist group that terrorizes Jews and which ultimately gets Daniel into a lot of trouble.  Daniel has a Jewish female friend who wants to help him out.  She says, “I don’t care about the truth, I care about you.”  She’s telling Daniel that she values him more than she values worldly facts, social morals or Biblical truths.  This is the central message and crux of the movie.  The love we have in our hearts is the one true, irrefutable religion.  It’s the one truth that cannot be argued or denied.   Daniel also feels this love in his heart, and it makes him a very confused and conflicted person. 

When his cohorts defile the Torah (the word of God), Daniel secretly and painstakingly repairs it.  And when Daniel is presented with the two opportunities to actually kill Jews, he can’t do it.  Daniel is supposed to be the sniper who shoots a respected Jewish leader, but he deliberately misses the shot.  The next try comes when Daniel and his group stage a time-bomb that’s set to go off during a service in a synagogue.  But when Daniel realizes his girlfriend and other friends are there, he warns them about the bomb before anyone gets hurt.  Finally, Daniel achieves his goal of killing a Jew when he sacrifices his own life in the bombing. 

Daniel is asked to be a recruiter/spokesperson for the fascist group he joins, but he gets fired when he starts talking about how the best way to get rid of Jews is to love them.  “Without hatred, the so-called chosen people would vanish.  The more they’re hated, the stronger they become.”  He’s saying that Love is the only force strong enough to stop Jews from wanting to stay separate from others. Writer-Director Bean introduces other minor, but important characters who reinforce this point.  Their dialogue includes phrases like “Maybe I was a Jew in a former life,” and “Forget all that Jewish stuff.  It doesn’t play.  The only thing that matters is the market, and it doesn’t care who you are….Maybe we’re all Jews now; what’s the difference?”

Hate is based on the idea that some of our brothers and sisters are different, better or worse than others.  Are Jews really different from anyone else?  All great spiritual truths teach that the hate we feel for others is really a displacement of the hate we feel for self.  Astrologer Stephanie Azaria says “If you check yourself out in the mirror and your shirt is unbuttoned, are you going to reach to the mirror to fix it or are you going to do what needs to be done on your own person? This is no different.” 

Daniel is a rebel.  His life is a rebellion against the meekness, passivity and non-action he perceives in Jews, and it’s a rebellion against the power-trip rules imposed on us by God.  When a judge forces him to go to Jewish sensitivity training, Daniel meets several Holocaust survivors and hears their haunting stories.  But Daniel rejects what they have to say because instead of fighting against the Nazis, the survivors accepted a victim role.  One of the survivors tells Daniel he has no right to judge them because he has no way of knowing what he would do in a similar impossible situation.

Of course, at the end of the movie, Daniel is in his own impossible situation. He can save his life and live the rest of it as a criminal in jail or he can sacrifice his life for a higher purpose.   Daniel deliberately and bravely chooses self-sacrifice. Like Jesus, the enlightened Jew, Daniel sacrifices self for the love of others and for the love of God.  After Daniel’s death, we meet him one more time.  He’s back in his Hebrew school, running up one flight of stairs after another, endlessly searching for something:  God, meaning, glory, enlightenment.  But there’s nothing there, nothing except endless searching.  Daniel is learning what we all must learn.  Self-sacrifice is meaningless.  Death is empty. God is not there.  And the example of enlightenment taught by Jesus needs to be reinterpreted without the notion of sacrifice. 

The teenaged Daniel does not give a convincing or credible performance.  Luckily, there are only a handful of scenes with him, and what we remember is the disturbing, multi-dimensional performance delivered by Ryan Gosling.  Also, sometimes The Believer plot feels over the top and contrived.  That said, The Believer is extraordinary because it makes you think about whether the ideas we learn about God, the same ones that have been passed down generation after generation for two millenniums, are worth keeping. 

DVD Title:  The Believer
Co-written and Directed By:  Henry Bean
Distributor:  Palm Pictures
Starring:  Ryan Gosling, Theresa Russell, Billy Zane
Copyright: 2001
Review Score: 4.5
Review Date: 05.18.09


Karen Bentley is America’s Spiritual Reviewer. She reviews contemporary books and movies exclusively from a love-based perspective. For more information go to www.spiritualreviewer.com and/or www.karenbentley.com.

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