In Woody Allen's 1977 classic Annie Hall, Allen's thinly veiled alter-ego Alvy Singer steps into his own childhood memory of a family dinner and uses his more articulate and jaded elder perspective to argue metaphysics. Twenty-five years later, Henry Bean explodes this oddly mournful comic moment into, arguably, the last cinematic word on Jewish agnosticism. Bean's film The Believer is a supreme cinematic argument which--though it propels itself dramatically with melodramatic gimmickry--sacrifices none of the power of its central conceit.
Beginning with a quotation from classical Roman poet Catullus--"I hate and I love/Who can tell me why?" The Believer spins the tangled tale of a teenage Jew named Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling, in an astounding breakthrough), who is vigorously active in the neo-Nazi underground. Only nominally interested in neo-Naziism itself, Bean focuses on Danny's psychological self-torture and existential torment as they steadily fill him to bursting. The "incredibly articulate" Danny captures the imaginations of the neo-Nazi leadership (slyly embodied by Theresa Russell and Billy Zane) and a smattering of his gentile and Jew peers, but it's quickly apparent that Danny only suffers fools as needed in the development of his own seminar of one. But Danny's Socratic dialogue with his own demons and, occasionally, the present individuals who threaten to bring him out of his self-built torture chamber fails to provide the definitive answer--or the peace--he seeks.
Bean juggles an inordinate number of elements with aplomb and humor. For starters, the film is inspired by the true story of a New York neo-Nazi who couldn't live with being a Jew, especially when The New York Times made his darkest secret public. Amid the tantalizing glimpses of Jewish school and Danny's obviously estranged father, Bean gives his anti-hero a comically frustrating romance with Carla (Summer Phoenix), the live-in daughter of Russell's measured Nazi. The masochistic Carla is drawn to Danny's cruel streak of practiced flagellation--both physical and intellectual--and she becomes seduced by the mystical trappings of Judaism. By the time Carla is going to temple, Bean can't help but cross Danny's tragic, "no one understands me" dimensions over into the cosmic joke that they are. Indeed, the ending of the film encapsulates the "no exit" ethos of Bean's take on impossible human despair.
What makes The Believer subversive is how credible and even understandable Bean and Gosling make Danny's self-hatred. It becomes an allegory for all manner of the repressed and torturous confusions of existence that hapless humans would dearly love to let go, if those confusions weren't all that they have. Even as he orchestrates the vandalism of a synagogue, Danny finds himself attempting to save the Torah from desecration. To this man enflamed--indeed defined--by argument, the Word is eternally sacred. It is this Word--the paradoxical Word that writes Danny's existence on the fabric of his universe--that will not be silenced, even as the credits roll The Believer away.