CHOSEN, THE

From the Nov. 5, 1982, Deseret News

THE CHOSEN — Maximilian Schell, Rod Steiger, Robby Benson, Barry Miller; rated PG (documentary footage of the Holocaust).

Human drama is all too rare on the silver screen these days, so it's a pleasure to note that a film has dropped in that is not only human but deeply moving and rich in detail. "The Chosen" is a rare, fulfilling feature and an example of how loving care can do more to make a film a success than all the blockbuster budgets in the world.

Though Maximilian Schell and Rod Steiger get top billing, the focus of the film is two young men played to perfection by Robby Benson and Barry Miller.

Benson is a Hasidic Jew, practicing ultra-orthodox traditions that are centuries old. He dresses in black, braids his hair and rejects modern society (the setting is the 1940s, during World War II); he is also dominated by his father, a very strict rabbi who is a hero to his congregation and who raises his son in silence, speaking with him only on rare occasions outside of their morning study of the Torah. Steiger, in a remarkably controlled performance, plays Benson's father.

Miller is also Jewish but he is a modern American teenager, whose father, Schell, is a vehement Zionist, pushing for the re-establishment of Israel as an independent national state.

Though their lives are extremely diverse, through a mishap the two boys become friends, and "The Chosen" is basically about that friendship transcending enormous obstacles.

But the film is about a lot of other things, too: The old world clashing with the new, love vs. instinct, the need for independence — both individually and collectively as a people — and much more.

Benson and Miller meet as antagonists, but are soon drawn together with a mutual fascination for what the other's lifestyle has to offer. Gradually their friendship becomes stronger until it is a bond that ties them together, despite the problems they encounter — not the least of which are the opposing philosophies of their respective fathers.

I've never been a particular fan of Benson's but he really gets into his character here and is completely convincing. Barry Miller, who was the aspiring standup comic that idolized Freddie Prinze in "Fame," nicely underplays his role, as do Schell and Steiger. Steiger is particularly notable since he has been so hammy in bad films of late; here, he reaffirms his talent as one of America's finest actors, given the proper role and firm-handed direction.

Chaim Potok, author of the original novel, appears briefly in a non-speaking role, and it's something of a testament to the sense of authenticity that permeates the entire film. Like "Monsignor" in its technical presence as it gave a rich, full visual sense of the Catholic Church and its rituals, "The Chosen" very much accomplishes the same for its subject — without half the budget. But unlike "Monsignor," "The Chosen" also offers three-dimensional characters and a solid storyline. Both films are distributed by 20th Century-Fox and it's a shame to see "Monsignor" getting such wide exposure while "The Chosen" is getting spotty display.

Some of the indoor photography is a bit too dark, though that is partly a mood-setting device, and there are a lot of specific Jewish traditions that go unexplained, but "The Chosen" will appeal to anyone who has ever had a strong friendship or a parent who understood more about them than they realized.

On another level, this film is a testament to subtlety, an all but abandoned art that doesn't need violence or sex or even profanity to make its very dramatic points. The PG rating is apparently for a scene in a movie theater where we are shown documentary footage of the Holocaust, some very stark and shocking film, but there is nothing distasteful, exploitative or degrading.

"The Chosen" is one of the best films of the year, and deserves to be seen by a wide audience. Don't wait too long or it may disappear.