Norman Jewison’s beloved “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) is not a perfect film. The story is somewhat repetitive, the second act doesn’t benefit from the memorable musical numbers of the first act, the entire thing suffers a little from a lack of continuity and its veeery long. The story however isn’t the important thing here – but rather its an opportunity to see a world and values and traditions (the good and the bad) which have long since faded.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is an adaptation of the much loved 1964 Broadway musical, the story of Tevye (Topol), a poor milkman living in a small rural village with five daughters and struggling to maintain his beliefs and religious traditions in a changing world. His three eldest strong willed daughters each want to marry for love and outside of the traditions that Tevye knows and cherishes; one to a poor man, one to a radical young Marxist who wants to leave their village for the big city, and one to a man who is not part of the Jewish faith. Tevye goes about his days mulling over what this all means with ponderings to the audience and to God, meanwhile his beloved village is being targeted by the local authorities under the order of the Tsar to expel the Jews.
Topol as Tevye is probably one of the reasons the film works to the extent it does. A lot of the run time is spent in conversation with the man, and he’s incredibly engaging. He’s big and warm and funny and wise, and its fun to be his friend as he tells us his story and as he sings his songs. Jewison (who funnily enough isn’t Jewish at all) has done a pretty good job in bringing the magic of the stage show to the screen while maintaining a realism that the stage show couldn’t achieve. The singing is not technically impressive, but deep and gravelly, the film benefits from the grand plains of Croatia but was filmed with a woman’s stocking over the camera to create a more earthy and gritty tone.
What is nice is getting to know the villagers and how they go about their lives, their customs, the mannerisms of the characters, their Yiddish expressions and idiosyncrasies. The film is jam packed with quick and funny moments, particularly at the hands of Tevye trying to avoid getting in trouble from his sharp and formidable wife Golde (Norma Crane) and the flurry of townspeople spouting wisdom always with a touch of cynicism, (the village Yente has a few well timed little snipes).
The musical numbers are big and theatrical, catchy, and often touching. I was a little surprised that there weren’t more big group numbers featuring the entire ensemble cast, its certainly the type of musical that would suit it – “Tradition” has the entire chorus getting into it, but they don’t appear on screen and it’s a bit of a shame. “Matchmaker” is fun and has some nice choreography, “Sunrise, Sunset” is beautiful (my girlfriend’s grandad got very choked up over this one) and “Miracle of Miracles” is one of those joyous tunes that I found myself humming days later. But these are all in the first half of the film, by the time the intermission rolls around, the tunes are fairly uninspiring and by this point the story has all but dried up and there’s not a whole lot to keep us rooted to the screen.
I think the biggest issue in the story is that the main complications come from each of Tevye and Golde’s daughters marrying outside of the Jewish customs. But by the time the eldest daughter marries the poor but honest tailor, there’s no real appeal in seeing the same thing happen twice again. The film touches on the political climate at the time and the persecution the Jews faced under the order of the Tsar and their eviction from the village, but only barely, and serves as only a distraction. So somehow the film is three hours long, spending far too much time on something that maybe should have been a third of the run time and then skims over other themes that perhaps could have fleshed out the narrative nicely.
For all it’s flaws, “Fiddler on the Roof” is a joyous and vibrant experience, with memorable characters and an iconic soundtrack. My girlfriend’s family is Jewish and we had put off watching Fiddler until we could do it with her grandparents, and I’m glad we did. For both of them, they had parents who lived in Eastern European countries at the turn of the twentieth century living in villages like the one Tevye and his family live in and it was obvious that getting a glimpse into this world for them was a beautiful and important thing.
By Jock Lehman