Tuesday, March 12, 2002
Los Angeles Henry Bean's directing debut finally is graduating from the film school of hard knocks.
"The Believer" premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, more than a year after the disturbing portrait of a Jewish neo-Nazi skinhead won the top dramatic prize at the Sundance Film Festival, beating contenders that included "In the Bedroom," a best-picture nominee for this month's Academy Awards.
Since Sundance, "The Believer" has been heaped with praise from critics and film-festival audiences. Yet it was shunned by film distributors who found it too hot to handle, prompting Bean to sign with the premium-cable channel. And its television debut was pushed back six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because of the film's ending, centering on a bomb planted at a Jewish house of worship.
That's a lot of baggage for a film that writer-director Bean initially viewed as something of a dark comedy examining the love-hate relationship Jews have with their faith.
Raised as a Jew and married to the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, Bean knew his story might discomfort the faithful. But he thought Jewish leaders would "see the honorable intentions behind it and see that it's really a good Jewish film," Bean said.
"It always felt to me that this was my love poem to Judaism. It really was about how much I liked it," Bean said. "To me, one of the great things about that religion is how self-critical it is and how much the religion itself is in love with contradiction and multiple points of view."
"The Believer" stars Ryan Gosling as Danny Balint, a bright young man so conflicted about his Jewish heritage that he denies his faith, spouts pro-Nazi sentiments and plots violence against Jews. The character was inspired by a real-life anti-Semite who killed himself after it was revealed he was Jewish.
Even as he rails against Jews and what he perceives as their passivity during the Holocaust, Danny reveals deep-seated reverence for the religion, meticulously teaching a new girlfriend how to read Hebrew and salvaging a desecrated Torah from a skinhead attack.
No theater debut
Danny fantasizes about playing both ends of the Holocaust, imagining himself as a Nazi thug impaling a 3-year-old Jewish boy on a bayonet and as the child's father fighting back in rage.
Gosling and Bean would have preferred to see "The Believer" debut commercially in theaters rather than on television. For one thing, Gosling said, moviegoers who have paid the ticket price would be more inclined than TV viewers to stick with the difficult film.
"Can people really watch this on TV? Are you going to turn this on and keep watching when you see a kid stalking a Jewish student on the subway, beat the hell out of him, then walk away?" Gosling said. "Will you change the channel and watch 'Sex in the City' instead? My gut feeling is you'll probably change the channel. You're in the comfort of your own living room, and this movie is a lot to bring into it."
After Sundance, Bean had requests from Jewish groups wanting to see "The Believer." He was quick to make video copies available, hoping endorsements from those groups would help win over film distributors hesitant to take on "The Believer."
The opposite happened. Negative reaction from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group, helped solidify misgivings about "The Believer" among potential distributors.
Studio interest "disintegrated fairly quickly after the Wiesenthal Center spokesman came out against the picture," said Daniel Diamond, president of Fireworks Pictures, which produced "The Believer" and whose distribution arm will handle a limited theatrical release in May.
Wiesenthal Center officials in turn are miffed with the filmmakers, saying Bean and the producers depicted the center as campaigning against "The Believer."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center said his group did not "invest an e-mail, a postage stamp, didn't even make a single phone call" about the film.
Cooper said he expressed his opinion about "The Believer" only when asked ï¿½ once by a studio that wanted his reaction and in a number of interviews requested by reporters.
"I didn't think the film worked," Cooper said. Unlike "American History X," a tale of a skinhead who renounces his fascist ways by film's end, "The Believer" leaves viewers with few clues about the source of the character's hatred.
"You never really know much about him by the end of the film," Cooper said. "You want some meaning. You want to know why, what motivated him. Was it because his teacher rapped his knuckles back in the second grade?"
Small distributors interested
Cooper also objected to a scene in which Danny and his cronies desecrate a synagogue, saying the "detailed nature" of the sequence was unnecessary.
While larger film companies shied away from "The Believer," Bean said some small distributors still were interested. But Showtime offered a better financial deal and had no reservations about the film's subject matter, he said.
"Places like Showtime and HBO, they want controversy. They want to stand out," Bean said. "They have the showmanship impulses that studios used to have and really don't anymore."
"The Believer" potentially will be seen by millions of viewers on Showtime, a far bigger audience than it was likely to find in art-house movie theaters. Showtime was eager to add "The Believer" to its list of premieres, which have included such thorny films as "Bastard Out of Carolina" and the remake of "Lolita."