Screened at Sundance (Dramatic Competition). Dir: Henry Bean. US. 2001. 99 mins.

The most provocative feature in competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival was The Believer, Henry Bean's mesmerising drama about neo-fascism in America, this time propagated by a Jewish youngster who rebels against his own tradition. Loosely based on the true tale of Daniel Burros, a Nazi who killed himself when the New York Times disclosed his Jewish origins, the film offers a stimulating meditation on the inescapable impact of religion and the inevitable burden of history on personal identity in contemporary life.

Deservedly winning this year's Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic feature in competition, The Believer should appeal to educated viewers seeking serious and challenging fare on the order of In The Company Of Men, The Rapture, and other dramas dealing with hot-button issues.

Not much in Bean's previous writing credits (the noir thrillers Internal Affairs, Mulholland Falls, Desperate Measures) serves as preparation for The Believer, the new intriguing drama he scripted and directed. The central protagonist is Danny Balint (Gosling), a twentysomething skinhead who spends his time browsing militia movements' websites in support of his fervent anti-Semitic theories. Through flashbacks, we learn about Danny's past as a precocious teenager, incessantly arguing with his Yeshiva rabbi, challenging the traditional interpretation of such pious chapters as the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. Out of curiosity, Danny attends an organising meeting of a neo-fascist movement at the home of the rich socialite Lina Moebius (Russell).

Bright and eloquent, he immediately impresses the members with his articulate ideology, urging the group to engage in direct violence against the Jews. Danny leaves the strongest bearing on Carla (Phoenix), Lina's smart-but-complicated daughter who is more attracted to his passionate zeal and brilliant mind than to her mother's extremist politics. The narrative chronicles how Danny rises up the ranks in right-wing circles, based on his physical and moral prowess. However, his increased prominence threatens to expose his secret, ie, that he is Jewish.

A scarily-suspenseful scene depicts how Danny and his fellow skinheads pick a violent fight in a kosher deli. Caught by the police, he ends up in court where he is assigned to 'sensitivity training' with elderly survivors of the Holocaust. These emotional sessions provide the turning point, forcing Danny to deal with an eternal Jewish dilemma: passivity versus activism in reacting against blatant racism. At first, he explodes in rage at the Jews' helpless passivity before the Nazis; their willingness to endure pain and survive rather than fight back and die.

Yet the survivors affect Danny more thoroughly than he is willing to admit. He becomes a victim of split personality - and ideology. By day, he gives anti-Semitic speeches and raises money for fascist causes; by night, he diligently studies the Torah and teaches Carla Hebrew and Sabbath rituals.

In the film's disturbing climax, Danny leads a group of skinheads into a nearby synagogue to plant a bomb, but the sanctuary, the ark, and the Torah touch him in a shockingly unexpected manner.

Bean does a wonderful job in constructing a young modern Jew full of contradictions, pulled in opposing directions by the inherent conflict between the sacred and the profane, the fine line between racial love and hatred. But he neglects to develop the other characters, particularly the neo-fascists whose politics remain vague and abstract. At times, the secondary roles feel like background, figures whose raison d'etre is to highlight Danny's more complex psychology.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between The Believer and the similarly-themed American History X, which revolved around a racist Angelino skinhead (Edward Norton), who viciously murders a black thief, but after a prison term comes to see the error of his ways. The more realistically grounded Believer avoids the hysterical melodramatics of American History X, in which the crucial motivation of the reformed killer is to save his impressionable and worshipful kid brother (Edward Furlong). Moreover, in the new drama, Danny's crisis and transformation do not seem as psychologically facile and dramatically convenient as those that defined the Norton character.

As challenging as The Believer is intellectually, technically it is rather flat. Bean acquits himself much more honourably as a writer than film-maker: his direction is static, almost reportage-like. At the same time, Bean does not compromise his morally-charged tale with the surface visuals of American History X, whose hip, black-and-white, MTV-like style severely undercut the urgency of its message.

Ultimately, what elevates The Believer above its pedestrian technical values is Gosling's spellbinding performance. Unlike Norton, who was considerably more charismatic as a skinhead than as a converted man, Gosling is utterly credible and equally magnetic in each and every turn of the narrative.

Prod co: Fuller Films. Int'l sales: Fireworks Pictures. Exec prod: Eric Sandys. Prods: Christopher Roberts, Susan Hoffman. Scr: Henry Bean. Cinematography: Jim Denault. Prod des: Susan Block. Eds: Mayin Lo, Lee Percy. Main cast: Ryan Gosling, Summer Phoenix, Theresa Russell, Billy Zane.