Tevye, a poor milkman in a small Ukrainian village is forced to deal with the unconventional marriages of his three daughters while reacting to changing traditions and the oppression of czarist Russia.
WON 3 OSCARS - Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Musical Score
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“Dear God…I know we are Your chosen people but once in a while can’t You choose someone else?”
The sun rises over a sleeping village where the only sound is from a distant fiddle. As the camera passes the silhouette of a fiddler on a roof, the viewers are introduced to Tevye, already hard at work, “Here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck,” he explains. “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!” And so begins the first musical number. As the village celebrates tradition, the film sets out to challenge everything Tevye (and the village) holds dear.
Norman Jewision’s screen adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof revolves around Tevye (Topol), a poor man with five daughters, a hard-working wife and a lazy horse. Tevye is good-natured, protective of his daughters and the traditions of his faith. Marriages are conducted through matchmakers, daughters obey their fathers and unions are sought between the same kinds of people. So it’s only fair that all three of his older daughters choose marriages that defy tradition.
As Tevye reacts to each of his daughters choice of husband – one poor, one a traveler and one not Jewish, he interacts with God and his family through song. Each song is written, arranged and sung beautifully. Jaunty tunes sung in a bar give way to emotional songs about leaving home and of loss and strength. The dancing is electric, with the camera moving close, bringing a fun, joyful energy to the screen. Especially entertaining is the bottle-balancing dance at Tevye daughter’s wedding.
Russia is changing at the turn of the century, and Anatevka is forced to change as well. A sewing machine becomes a new addition to the family as industrialization encroaches. Newspapers are being read for information even as the Rabbi insists the Good Book is the only stories they need. Activists are rising and speaking up. So when the Pogrom forces the villagers to flee, its destruction is felt; this village when evacuated of its people has no life at all.
The film’s strongest aspect is its ability to balance humour and pain. From the arm-waving, voice-raising arguments between Topol and his wife, Golde (Norma Crane), and his unsuccessful attempts to control whom his daughters marry, the humour is constant, making the loss at the end of the film that much more painful. Most endearing is Topol’s relationship with God, whom he questions and argues with every time he’s dealt a difficult situation. His exasperated glances to the sky are both hilarious and sweet. When he looks up questioningly, palms to Heaven as the camera reveals the destruction at his daughter’s wedding, the relationship is particularly poignant and heartbreaking.
Unlike plays set on stage, the film succeeds in creating a world which is tactile; the audience can almost cough on the dust kicked up by the horses, smell the baking bread and feel the breeze that whips through the tall grass. Director, Norman Jewison shot the film in a small town in rural Yugoslavia (Croatia) successfully re-creating a 1910 Ukrainian village. The small houses, the market and the chicken coops all indicate a place that has been inhabited for a very long time. Tradition stirs the people and energizes this tiny village. The cinematography by Oswald Morris (who won an Oscar) is lovely; shot with earth tones and sepia during ‘Tevye’s Dream’ sequence where ancestral ghosts dance in a graveyard.
One of the common complaints of this film is its length, clocking in at three hours (there is a two and half hour cut of the film, but this review is for the three hour version). The story repeats a pattern three times with three daughters, but without the repetition it can be argued that the audience couldn’t fall in love with Tevye, who reveals a part of himself in each situation. And the film takes its time showing the inner workings of a community that argues, celebrates and supports each other. This works for the film as the exodus at the end is felt more deeply as a result of the time spent with the characters.
As the villagers begin their long trek to their new lives, Tevye turns back for one last look at the only life he’s ever known. The fiddler appears and together they continue walking as the notes from the fiddle accompanies their long journey towards the unknown. The sun sets over a beautiful last shot.
Fiddler on the Roof is entertaining and emotional. With beautiful performances and unforgettable songs, garnering many Oscar nominations and wins, the film has an enduring quality. Both tragic and hopeful, the musical manages to show a slice of history through characters who accept, struggle and challenge tradition.