AJFF Intro: The Chosen

AJFF Intro: The Chosen

The film tells the story of how two young men navigating the road to maturity in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the mid to late 1940s.

To prepare you for 21st year of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, completely virtual-for-the-first time as you’ve never seen before, we bring you 21 previews spotlighting the breath of films offered for your home viewing. The films, which represent more than half of those in the AJFF lineup Feb. 17-28, include classics, intimate family dramas, upbeat comedy and historic documentaries. Sit back and relax as the AJFF brings us together through film.

One of the best of several great classics in the year’s festival is “The Chosen,” an independent film produced by Ely Landau in 1981.

In her 1998 book, “The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies,” film critic Kathryn Bernheimer ranks it as No. 1, ahead of “Fiddler on the Roof” at No. 2 and “Schindler’s List” No. 3. Part of the reasoning that puts this modest film ahead of its more lavishly produced rivals is the effective way she believes it deals with the religious tension that underlays the modern Jewish experience.

The film features strong performances by two masters of the screen acting craft, Maximilian Schell and Rod Steiger. The latter, who won best actor at the Montreal International Film Festival for his role, was said to have spent time observing the Chabad leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The film tells the story of how two young men, one born to the Chasidic Rebbe, the other to a modern Orthodox Talmudic scholar, navigate the road to maturity in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the mid to late 1940s.

While Robby Benson (born Robert Segal) as the modern Orthodox teen and Barry Miller as the Chasidic heir are both attractive characters, the real star of the film is the book upon which the film is based. It is the 1967 novel of the same name by Chaim Potok, a rabbi and faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

When it was published, it was on The New York Times best-seller list for 39 weeks and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It eventually sold 3.4 million copies worldwide.

The novel is the foundation upon which screenwriter Edwin Gordon, in his only produced screenplay, builds an intelligent and solidly plotted work. Jeremy Kagan directs with a sure and steady eye.

What results is a very Jewish film, not only in all its details, but also in all its substance. Bernheimer, who had a long history with the Denver Jewish Film Festival, calls it one of the most profoundly Jewish films ever made.
And while, after 40 years it is somewhat dated in its approach to the traditional Jewish world, it remains a strong and even-handed attempt to come to terms of what it means to be Jewish.

The 2021 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has interviews with Robby Benson and director Jeremy Kagan on its festival website.

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