"The Chosen," based on Chaim Potok's first novel, opens with an internecine baseball game in the Jewish section of Brooklyn. Vintage '40s radio -- "The Goldbergs," big- band broadcasts, the news from Normandy -- sets the tone: There is genocide in Europe, but this borough seems self-absorbed. It's Jews against Jews, Hassidim and their Orthodox antagonists engaged in a holy war of grandiose words and small gestures.
In the field are the Orthodox kids, trying to push their way into mainline America via Argyle and swing. But their opponents, the insular Hassidim, won't melt into the pot in payis and the flat black hats they remove only at bat. They are beyond Tevye's tradition, alien as the Amish, elite and despised.
Hassidic hitter Danny Saunders (Robby Benson) comes up to the insults of pitcher Reuven Malter (Barry Miller), whose taunts finally break Danny's icy control; he tries to kill him with a line drive. It's an explosion that brings these two brilliant and devout young men together, despite the divergent practices and politics of their fathers.
Maximilian Schell plays Reuven's father, a secular scholar whose unorthodox writings have angered Danny's father, Rebbe Saunders (Rod Steiger), leader of an ultraconservative Russian immigrant flock.
Reuven, who moves in with Danny, is drawn by the extended family of the Hassidim as he is repelled by what he thinks of as Rebbe Saunder's fanaticism. Both men are mentors to both sons, but after the war, Professor Malter's efforts to help found a Jewish state is denounced as blasphemy by the Hassidim, and the friendship declared anathema.
This might have been a moodily moving film except for serious miscasting. The rabbi is a ham: Steiger's performance is preposterous, huge enough for "Fiddler on the Roof," but too big for this cerebral film. Benson is merely in over his head. He tries and tries, and so do we, but it is impossible to believe he has ever been bar mitzvah, much less spent his entire life smothered in Talmud.
Despite ponderous dialogue and overacting, "The Chosen" is worth seeing for its Rembrandt-like portrait of a rare people. It has no chutzpah and a wealth of good intentions. The filmmakers might have been more daring, but the Almighty was looking.
THE CHOSEN -- Opens Friday at the Avalon.