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'The Chosen': maverick movie based on the Potok novel

Rod Steiger knows that acting is a business. He knows that Hollywood puts commerce before art, and that even a star has to earn a living. He knows that a profitable part can be just as necessary as a juicy one.

Yet he lives and works for the rare occasions when a really splendid role knocks on his door. When it happens, he's willing to jump right in without worrying about the bottom line. That's how he felt about ''The Pawnbroker,'' a film he still talks about nearly 20 years later. And that's how he feels about his latest movie, The Chosen. In it, he plays a powerful Hasidic rabbi in a Jewish section of Brooklyn during the 1940s. The story focuses on his son's gradual growth away from the Hasidic world, and his own need to accept this change.

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Discussing the new picture over lunch the other day, Steiger acknowledged that it doesn't fit the pattern of today's films. It's a story about fathers and sons, brimming with tradition and ethnicity. No raiders, no supermen, little action, only a few laughs. Rather, lots of words and thoughts, and a clear depiction of a time and place rarely treated in the movies.

Which is exactly why Steiger chose to play the bushy-bearded Reb Saunders, even though it's a relatively small part in terms of minutes on the screen. Steiger is distressed by the recurring mindlessness of today's films, and the frequent violence of movies and TV shows. Even video games mirror the obsession with destruction and aggression, he feels. All of which drove him gratefully into the arms of ''The Chosen'' when he was offered one of its pivotal roles. He sees the film as a bold and encouraging contrast to a generally decadent cinema scene.

And there was another temptation that pulled him into the picture: the chance to appear in the climax, when the old rabbi expresses his deep love for his teen-age son, and reveals the rationale behind his unconventional upbringing of the boy. As it happens, Steiger was originally asked to play a different part in ''The Chosen,'' that of a scholar active in the Zionist movement immediately after World War II. He was so moved by the final scene, however, that he insisted on having the rabbi's role.

He got what he wanted. Which makes sense, as he surpasses all other American actors in the ability to transform himself according to the physical and emotional demands of a role -- an ability that accounts for his stardom despite the absence (readily admitted) of a ''matinee idol'' image. Maximilian Schell ended up as the scholar in ''The Chosen,'' with Robby Benson and Barry Miller as the young heroes, two brilliant and sensitive boys with different ideas of how to embody their religious values in everyday life. Incidentally, the lesser-known Miller acts Benson and Schell right off the screen, though he is billed well below the three other stars, such are the ways of Hollywood.

Considered as a whole, ''The Chosen'' is indeed a maverick movie, depicting its characters and their milieu with restraint and respect. Yet it doesn't measure up to the fine Chaim Potok novel it takes its story from. In part, this reflects the price of ''adapting'' a lengthy and literate book. It's hard to imagine how Potok's expansive descriptions of Jewish life, lore, and history could be transposed to the screen in a commercial film. Not to mention the Potok prose style, a spare and subtle approach that builds to enormous intensity with no suggestion of haste or sacrifice of dignity.

But surely the movie could have given us better compensation than the silly subplot about what college the rabbi's son will go to, or the half-developed romance between his sister and his best friend. Even the carefully detailed scenes of Hasidic life lose much of their depth in the movie version, becoming bursts of ethnic color - the picture is being promoted as a successor to ''Fiddler on the Roof'' - rather than integral manifestations of an ancient way of life.

On the printed page, ''The Chosen'' is much more than a nostalgic yarn; it's a meditation on intelligence and wisdom, maturity and responsibility, scholarship and faith. On the screen, it's a warm story about some unusual people at a difficult time: a sincere film, but never a transcendent one.

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