- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Henry Bean's directing debut finally is graduating from the film school of hard knocks. "The Believer" will premiere at 8 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 that found it too hot to handle, prompting Mr. Bean to sign with the premium-cable channel. Its TV debut was pushed back six months after the September 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 Mr. Bean, the writer and director, 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, Mr. Bean knew his story might discomfort the faithful, but he says he thought Jewish leaders would "see the honorable intentions behind it and see that it's really a good Jewish film."

"It always felt to me that this was my love poem to Judaism. It really was about how much I liked it," Mr. Bean says. "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.

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.

Mr. Gosling and Mr. Bean would have preferred to see "The Believer" debut commercially in theaters rather than on television. For one thing, Mr. Gosling says, 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?" Mr. Gosling says. "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, Mr. 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," says 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. Cooper said he expressed his opinion about "The Believer" only when asked once by a studio that wanted his reaction and in a number of interviews requested by reporters.

"I didn't think the film worked," Mr. Cooper says. 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," Mr. Cooper says. "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?"

Mr. Cooper also objected to a scene in which Danny and his cronies desecrate a synagogue, saying the "detailed nature" of the sequence was unnecessary.

"Places like Showtime and HBO, they want controversy. They want to stand out," Mr. Bean says. "They have the showmanship impulses that studios used to have and really don't, anymore."

"Honestly, I don't think we had any hesitation when we saw the film. Our tag line is 'no limits,' within the bounds of good taste," says Jerry Offsay, Showtime president of programming. "It's provocative, interesting, smart, edgy. Why wouldn't we want to put it on the air?"

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