View Full Version : The Chosen; Avanim - Two films about Judaism

Howard Schumann
08-23-2006, 12:15 AM

Directed by Jeremy Kagan (1981)

Conflict between two Orthodox Jewish families over the state of Israel threatens the growing friendship between two teenagers in The Chosen, a 1981 film based on the best-selling novel by Chaim Potok. Set in New York City in the 1940s, Reuven Malter (Barry Miller) is the worldlier of the two boys. He is more modern and practical than his friend, Danny Saunders (Robby Benson) who comes from a strict Hasidic background and wears hair curls and the traditional long black robe with white shirt. Danny's father Reb Saunders (Rod Steiger) is an immigrant Rabbi who is known in the community as a Tzaddic, a messenger from God. Rabbi Saunders raised Danny in silence in order to teach him humility and expects him to follow him in becoming a Rabbi.

Both boys wish to enter the other's world. Reuven longs for Danny's extended family and sense of community. Danny is interested in Freudian psychology and looks to Reuven to expose him to art, film, and music. The two boys meet on a ball field as a group of Hasidic Jews play a team of Jewish schoolboys. The Hasidim look like unworthy opponents but they turn out to be talented ballplayers. The game ends suddenly, however, when Danny hits a line drive that strikes Reuven in the eyes. When Danny comes to apologize in the hospital, Reuven rejects him, convinced that he will never regain his vision in his eye.

Though the boys gradually become friends, Reuven has to work to gain acceptance from Danny's father and must endure questioning on the intricacies of Jewish law. Reuven takes Danny to see his first movie and protects him when Rabbi Saunders asks what books Danny is reading at the library. Reuven is welcomed into the Saunders family and takes part in wedding celebrations and family dinners but, when he takes a liking to Danny's sister Shaindel (Kaethe Fine), he is told that all marriages are arranged in the Hasidic culture and Shaindel's partner has already been chosen. Both boys attend Hirsch College, Danny studying experimental psychology and Reuven philosophy but they maintain their study and appreciation of the sacred texts. Their friendship is threatened, however, when Reuven's father, David Malter, (Maximilian Schell), a professor at the local College, becomes an activist in the Zionist cause as the United Nations begins debating the partition of Palestine.

The idea of a secular Jewish state is strongly opposed by Saunders and other Hasidim who believe that Jews, according to a literal reading of the Bible, should only be led back to Israel by the Messiah and he refuses to let Danny to speak to Reuven for half a year. Rabbi Saunders is depicted in the film as a harsh and uncompromising figure who sees only ugliness and evil outside of religion but his humanity is redeemed as he explains to his son why he raised him in silence. He says that he thought that his brilliance was going to be too dominant in his life and that the essence of religion is in feeling and not in reason. He tells him, "...I cried inside my heart. I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, 'What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!"

Questions of faith and the religious ideal and how they can conflict with friendship are prominent themes in The Chosen. It is an entertaining and thought-provoking film but is unfortunately marred by a mannered performance from Rod Steiger as the Rabbi who turns a slow dance at a wedding into high camp and by Robbie Benson whose wooden acting fails to bring Danny to life. The Hasidic Jews are presented only as funny looking people with rigid ideas and their joy and spirituality, while glimpsed at a wedding ceremony, is lost among all the pontificating. What is also missing is any mention of the central idea of the Hasidim - the notion that God permeates all physical objects in nature, including all living beings and that man, by concentrating all of his thoughts on God, can unite with source and influence events on Earth.


AVANIM (Stones)

Directed by Raphael Nadjari (2004)

The clash between a modern, secular woman's desire for independence and her ties to the Rabbinical establishment that wants to dominate her life is the main theme of Avanim, a powerful French/Israeli drama by Raphael Nadjari. Set in the Hatikva district of Tel Aviv, Michale (Asi Levi) fulfills the roles expected of her. She is a dutiful wife, mother to a bright five-year old son, and loyal worker in her father's accounting firm. We know that things are not all right, however, when we see her having an afternoon affair with a lover, of whom we know next to nothing. Shooting in a close-up, intimate style with a hand-held camera and improvisational acting, we follow Michale going through the routine of her existence, mostly in moody silence, bringing her boy to a pre-school, being late in picking him up, and wearily greeting her husband late in the evening.

Her Sephardic husband Shmoulik (Danny Steg), a building contractor, is a burly, decent fellow but does not seem to provide the emotional gratification Michale is seeking. Her life becomes more tightly wound when she discovers her father's (Uri Gabriel) complicity in a scheme to pad the number of students to attract money from the government for the construction of a new Yeshiva. When her lover is killed in a suicide bombing, however, long stifled emotions come to the surface and she is forced to deal with the conflicts of her life in an uncompromising manner..

There are no entirely sympathetic characters in Avanim. The father is wearing ethical blinders and the husband seems unconscious of his wife's emotional needs. While Michale is more sympathetic, she rebels in covert ways without openly communicating her feelings to her family or considering the emotional consequences of her behavior for her son. For example, she stays out all night without telling anyone where she is while her husband and father are understandably frantic. While Asi Levi delivers a strong performance as the restless, dissatisfied housewife, the script never crystallizes the issues and, in spite of a melodramatic ending, lacks an emotional payoff.