Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Chosen (1981)

Another of the movies that I had the chance to watch courtesy of one of the free previews was The Chosen. It's going to be on again tomorrow at 6:00 AM on MovieMax, with a couple more airings over the next week and a half.

In New York City around the time of the D-Day invasion, Reuven Malter (Barry Miller) is a secular Jewish teenager. Living not far from the Malters and the other secular Jews in the area is a group of Hasidic Jews, much more traditional and strict in their interpretation of the Torah and Talmud, led by Rebbe Saunders (Rod Steiger). One day, the Hasidic Jewish teenagers are invited to play a game of baseball against the secular Jews, and surprise surprise, the Hasidim are pretty good. The game, however, takes a dark turn when a ball hit by Danny Saunders (Robby Benson), son of the Rebbe, hits Reuven in the eye, sending Reuven in the hospital.

It was an accident, of course, and Danny feels bad about it, but Reuven has a bit of difficulty accepting Danny's sincere apology, probably in part because those Hasidim seem just a bit weird. After all, they let their hair grow out and all wear the same black jackets with white dress shirts and a hat. But eventually, the two agree to meet again, which is when Reuven learns that Danny has a photographic memory that enables him to learn Talmud much more quickly than your average young Jewish man.

Reuven also learns taht Danny has a difficult relationship with his father. The Rebbe wants Danny to follow in his footsteps and become the next Rebbe, as multiple generations of first-born sons in their family have done. Danny, however, has been sneaking out to the library and reading some literature as well as books on psychology, and given a chould would like to attend the secular Jewish college that Reuven is planning on attending. The Rebbe's plans don't call for any of that, or even much connection with the modern world outside. Danny doesn't seem to know who Benny Goodman is, or ever seen a movie.

Danny invited Reuven over to meet his family, and it winds up having some effect on Reuven too. The Hasidim may be radically different, but they also have a vibrant culture that seems to work for them as well as secular culture works for the rest of us. There are also the debtes on Talmud, which hit upon a spot in Reuven's heart that hasn't been tended to. (I'm reminded of the old adage that atheists don't replace God with nothing, but with something else, often the state.)

But there's conflict coming. With World War II having ended, the Jews who were nearly exterminated by the Nazis are intent on forming a Jewish state of their own in Palestine. That's something that Reuven's college professor father David (Maximilin Schell) has been stridently advocating for. Unfortunately, the Hasidim are equally strongly opposed to the idea of the Jewish state on the grounds that it's not sufficiently Jewish. As the Rebbe says, the Nazis tried to kill the Jewish body and now the secular Jews are trying to kill the Jewish soul. Danny has actually already met Prof. Malter, although he didn't know at the time this was Reuven's father. If the Rebbe finds out how much Reuven's father is advocating for the creation of Israel, there's going to be hell to pay, pardon the expression.

The Chosen is a really interesting movie that touches on a lot of universal themes, especially the conflict between tradition and modernity that I've mentioned before when I compared The Jazz Singer (another strongly Jewish-themed movie) with something like Eat, Drink, Man, Woman which has a lot of the same conflicts but in the completely different venue of Taiwan. For the most part, it seems to be fairly kind to the Hasidim, not treating them like swivel-eyed loons the way that the Hollywood of today seems to think about certain branches of Christianity. Each side has something to learn from the other.

The Chosen is anchored by a strong performance from Rod Steiger, and a good one from Schell. If there's a weakness, it's Robby Benson, who I don't think I've ever seen give a particularly strong performance. I also couldn't help but think that the movie takes a way out of the dilemma it spends most of the film setting up that's not quite realistic enough. On the whole, however, The Chosen is definitely worth seeing.

(NB: As of this writing, Amazon Web Services is down. Since Amazon owns IMDb now, I haven't been able to get to the actual IMDb page for The Chosen, although their search seems to be working. If the above is the wrong link, I apologize.)

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