"The Chosen" is a judicious and affectionate example of a movie adaptation of a novel.
Director Jeremy Paul Kagan and screenwriter Edwin Gordon have kept the authenticity of the sectarian ethnic life that Chaim Potok tried to recreate in his 1967 novel. The book chronicles the troubled friendship of two brainy Jewish kids, Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders, who come from hostile sides of the Orthodox Jewish-American community residing in Brooklyn in the 1940s.
The directors have taken every sensible opportunity, beginning with an excellent voice-over narration spoken with reflective discretion by Barry Miller, the young actor cast as Reuven, to clarify the setting, culture and period for "outsiders" wherever necessary.
In addition, Kagan and Gordon have been consistently shrewd about eliminating weak material from the novel while expanding effectively at other points. For example, it enhances the pictorial storytelling process when a Hasidic marriage ceremony mentioned only in passing in the novel becomes the pretext for a rousing sequence also manipulated to resolve a sub-plot, Reuven's infatuation with Danny's sister Shaindel, an extremely attractive figure of a girl as embodied by Kaethe Fine. In a similar respect, the invented episode of Reuven escorting Danny to his first movie entertains without violating the spirit of the source material. "The Chosen" may usher many moviegoers, Jews included, into a neighborhood and a period that look a little strange, but the filmmakers can be counted on to make everyone feel at home.
A number of Jewish-American writers have recalled the Williamsburg setting and '40s background by now, but the movies haven't explored much of this autobiographical literature. If memory serves, "The Chosen" is the first mainstream picture devoted to the subject of the contrasts and conflicts between Orthodox American Jews. Moreover, it places the intimate story of a boyhood friendship within a sharply defined historical context, showing how the "modern" Orthodox Jews on one hand and the ultra-traditional Hasidic congregations on the other were polarized by the inevitable Americanization of the younger generation growing up in World War II Brooklyn, and the controversy over the establishment of a Jewish state in the aftermath of the war.
The modern group is exemplified by Reuven and his widowed father, a dedicated teacher and biblical scholar played by Maximilian Schell. Danny, a role that finally permits Robby Benson to add intelligence and dignity to his customary adolescent sweetness and gaucherie, is the heir apparent to a strict Hasidic following led by his father, Reb Saunders, a domineering religious patriarch impersonated with surprising restraint and believability by Rod Steiger.
The boys first encounter each other in an atmosphere of keen mutual contempt when their yeshiva softball teams play what swiftly degenerates into a grudge match one afternoon in June, 1944. The hostility fuels an accident that hospitalizes Reuven and obliges Danny to make friendly overtures.
More than a little proud and priggish in his own right, Reuven rejects this initial gesture. However, his father's disapproval and his own guilty conscience make it impossible to sustain this attitude. Relenting, Reuven discovers a remarkable friend in Danny, a boy genius being raised in a tradition at once awesome and appalling, marked for a destiny that he's resigned to accepting even as he secretly resists it.
The material is designed to illuminate the ironies that grow out of peculiarly different upbringings and father-son relationships within the same faith and neighborhood. As Reuven remarks, only five blocks separated the Malter and Saunders households but a century might have divided their ways of life. However, when the boys cease being strangers, it's apparent that they discover something inspirational and consoling in each other's companionship and family situation. In a sense they discover spiritual fathers while their fathers acquire new sons.
Reb Saunders has deliberately distanced himself from Danny on grounds that remain mystifying until the conclusion, and historical circumstances conspire to undermine his bitter opposition to the creation of a modern, secular Jewish state. While the storytellers clearly share the outlook of the Malters on Jewish issues, Zionism included -- Prof. Malter devotes himself to the cause and Reuven is caught up in its fervor -- the ultimate emotional impulse behind "The Chosen" is reconciliation between both individuals and generations within a divided community.
Pleasing as the period evocation is, the movie seems to have been somewhat inhibited by a tight budget. "The Chosen" looks like a resourceful piece of filmmaking, but it doesn't look expansive enough to escape resemblance to a superior made-for-television project.
There's also a sense that the youthful characters may be too respectable for effective movie exploitation. Reuven and Danny have their conflicts, but they're essentially studious, obedient and well-behaved. Miller and Benson demonstrate that good boys aren't necessarily dull boys, but the medium may find delinquents more congenial protagonists.
Action fans may also consider the nature of the conflicts rather more cerebral than they like. At least I infer this possibility from the reaction of my 8-year-old daughter, who didn't think "The Chosen" was too stimulating after the fateful softball game. "You know what's wrong with that movie?" she informed me. "It's too understanding." She's absolutely right, but the folks who can tolerate understanding may grow strangely fond of "The Chosen."