Elazar Fine’s The Chosen One is cool, thrilling to watch, and takes a daring stance on religion as it unpacks religious trauma and the guilt one feels when running away from faith. I was captivated from just the first two minutes: through the reflection of his mirror where a Hebrew prayer is engraved, we see a young Orthodox Jewish man, Eli, weeping on the floor behind his bed, electric razor in hand. To fast-paced violin and cello music, Eli, with his back turned to us, shaves his long beard and long curly sideburns (or payot, in Hebrew), strong symbols of Hasidic Jewish faith, while the other members of his Orthodox family calmly read books, pray, and clean in common rooms. At last, a family member enters Eli’s bedroom and lets out a gasp.
Eli’s father, Tatty, then chases a partially shaven, scrappy-bearded Eli out of the house in a horrifying and intimidating manner, pushing on his chest and slapping him across the face. He believes that Eli has betrayed his family, tradition, and God by shaving his beard and payot. The camera work on the sidewalk scenes is steady and interesting to watch. The audience members feel as though they are passengers in a car on an adjacent road moving alongside this father berating his son. Finally, Tatty kicks his remorseful son out of the house for demonstrating such embarrassing and nonconforming behavior, begging the question, how far would someone go to follow religious principles? Would you abandon your own child?
Eli helplessly retreats to his Aunt Shifra’s house, as per his mother’s instructions. Aunt Shifra is clearly Jewish, but not Hasidic, and although she just met Eli, she appears more caring than either of Eli’s parents were– offering water, a listening ear, and an invitation to stay as long as he wants. Perhaps being ultra-religious is not what makes someone a good person after all? I’m sure Eli has begun to realize this. Aunt Shifra even offers to put on more modest clothing if it will make Eli feel more comfortable. This indicates that Shifra is knowledgeable about Jewish culture, but chooses not to embrace rules of Judaism that do not make sense to her. When Shifra asks why Eli is not looking at her, Eli recounts a vice he learned from the head rabbi at yeshiva (Jewish school) when he was 13: looking at women (especially over summer vacation when there are more “evil temptations”). Shifra insists that he look at her; she believes that if religious rules say you cannot make simple eye contact with your aunt, then the rules are too extreme.
The rest of the movie is an epic nightmarish episode, where Eli is back in his beard and payot haunted by: images of girls in revealing clothing; athletic Hasidic men in an alleyway; and an unforgettable Groundhog Day-like sequence in which Eli shares an uncanny resemblance with a bloody-handed Macbeth who has just killed Duncan.
As the ending credits rolled atop the image of a bathroom sink covered in hair, blood, and a buzzing razor, I pondered the film’s title. A “chosen one” usually refers to someone selected by a higher power to carry out a religious challenge, not someone who defies religious rules. Why would a higher power send Eli on a journey to question religion? Perhaps a Higher Power would prefer we question religious authority rather than go along with it blindly. Perhaps we do not need to follow every rule and believe every story to be devout.
Lastly, religious traditions are so ingrained that maybe you have to cut deeper than skin level to take the faith out of them. Or maybe you never can.
The Chosen One screen at the 2023 New Jersey International Film Festival on Friday, June 2 as part of Shorts Program #1. The film will be Online for 24 Hours and In-Person at 7 PM in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ. Tickets are available for purchase here. The Chosen One Director Elazar Fine will be at this screening along with a few of the other filmmakers to do a Q+A session with the audience after the show.