New-Release Tuesday: Fiddler on the Roof

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

I well remember the Sunday afternoon when I saw Fiddler on the Roof as a nine-year-old.  It was the rare—maybe the only?—occasion on which my family saw a movie with my grandparents.  A true “general audiences” experience.

The film made quite an impression on me.  A few years later, after I bought my first record player, the Oscar-winning soundtrack was one of my first LPs.  I’ve still got it, nearly forty years later, and only recently converted it to MP3.  So I’ve always been pretty down with Fiddler.

The story is fairly simple: the times, they are a-changin,’ Russian style, close to the end of the Tsarist period.  Rural Anatevka is home to a significant Jewish population that coexists, very uneasily and unequally, with the local goyim.  Life has always been hard, and Jewish traditions have helped keep the community together—and separate.  But The Enlightenment has forced its way into just about every nook and cranny in the world, and Tevye the milkman finds that the world no longer values traditional mores and leadership.  The story’s conflict plays out as Tevye’s daughters reject traditional matchmaking, and as an uneasy cultural truce falls victim to yet another cycle of racially-motivated and fear-based purges.

When the intermission comes, you won’t have felt at all like you’re nearly two hours into the film.  By contrast, the final hour of the film feels like it goes on just a bit too long.  Maybe Tevye should have had four daughters, and not five?

The film really has two stars.

The first of these is Chaim Topol, a native Palestinian Israeli thespian who originated the role of Tevye in London’s West End.  A winner of both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for the film performance, Topol was apparently on active duty with the Israeli army when he attended the Oscars award ceremony in 1972.  We would do well to remember what happened at the Munich Olympics later that year.  That Topol was himself intensely Jewish was in no small measure part of the formula for his success as Teyve.

What’s beautiful about Topol’s characterization, though, is not his Jewishness—it’s his earthy humanity, and his close, conversational relationship with God.  Whether he’s breaking out in his trademark song, “If I Were A Rich Man,” and bellowing about “some vast eternal plan,” or musing “on the other hand…” while he debates his daughters’ matches, there’s no mistaking that Tevye does not live a fragmented life in which religion is boxed neatly away until it’s needed.  He lives with God, he breathes with God, and he will die with God.  This is a stirringly intense portrayal of faith lived out.

The second of the film’s stars is its music.  Originally written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the songs were further enhanced by the soon-to-be-legendary John Williams’ film scoring and provide what are among the most memorable filmed musical numbers ever: “Tradition,” “If I Were A Rich Man,” “Sabbath Prayer,” “To Life,” “Tevye’s Dream,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “The Bottle Dance” are all remarkable in their own right—but to populate the first two hours of film with all of those plus another handful of solid songs thrown in… well, that’s just what makes the final hour of the film drag.

The film also sags in the final going because of the production design.  As Tevye’s world falls apart, the color gets literally sucked out of it—and out of the film.  It’s heartbreaking as his three oldest girls leave home—the latter two under less-than-happy circumstances—and we really feel the weight of the Jewish plight when they’re all told that they have three days to sell their homes and be gone.  The sadness is palpable, and it’s memorable.

But that final downbeat drabness also doesn’t play so well, cinematically.

Still, the adrenaline and endorphins from the pre-intermission footage are enough to fuel us to the conclusion of Teyve’s tale. And what a pleasure it is to see a film that treats a culture and a religion with such respect.  I felt the same way about the depiction of Islam when I saw the Fench/Tunisian film Days of Glory.

Much can be learned from Fiddler on the Roof—and much can be enjoyed.

Fiddler on the Roof is rated G.  I’m all for it, even though there’s some dream-sequence scariness and violent intent that would likely warrant a PG today.  Kids are a little tougher than we think, in all likelihood, though they don’t need to be exposed to anything gratuitously.  Director Norman Jewison had good instincts here about how far was far enough for a family audience.

Fiddler on the Roof is now included with your Amazon Prime subscription. You can also stream at YouTube.