It’s a precious rarity when a film allows the whole spectrum of human emotion to be experienced—despair, exuberant joy, sadness, happiness, awe, fear, when all these emotions are woken up. It doesn’t happen a lot, despite it being what we go to the movies for, to be moved and entertained as the same time. To be emotionally involved in a story that yet is a effortless joy to watch, and great fun. “Fiddler on the Roof,” Norman Jewison’s adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name, is a large Hollywood production that can very easily make you laugh and cry and sing. It’s the story of a poor Jewish peasant, Tevye, and his large family in 19th century Ukrainian Russia, who suffer through the hardships that befall every impoverished peasant in that time and more, seeing as Orthodox Christian Russia does not look kindly upon the Jews, and three of his daughters are ready to be married in a changing world. It’s the story of the small village of Anatevka. It’s the story of the fiddler on the roof, the personifcation of tradition, as he heralds the dawn each morning with his music from a perch as precarious as the situation of the Jewish peasants. It’s stirring and vivid, tragic and uplifting, pure and simple, old-fashioned and timeless.
Tevye, inhabited by Chaim Topol, is the father of the family and the village milkman. He’s a big simple and sturdy man, and he can take most things in stride. It’s a hard life, but it’s what God gave him (though that doesn’t mean Tevye can’t ask him why) and it’s how it always was. He isn’t bowed down by his miserable existence. When he breaks into song, such as “If I Were a Rich Man,” and lifts his arms in the air while shaking his large chest side-to-side and thumping his heart, and stamps gaily around his barn above his horse and his chickens and cows, it’s breathtakingly assaultive. It’s so full to the brim with life, and the joy of living, that you can’t imagine it’ll get more buoyant or happy. Topol turns it into a celebratory song, one that makes you want to get up and shout and stamp your feet and shake. There are others like it, such as the one aptly called “To Life!,” where Tevye and other Jewish peasants do dance and drink in the pub with each other and even with the Orthodox Christians, and another at his eldest daughter’s wedding (where the dancers link arms and kick their legs out and slide forward low, kicking up dust onto their traditional black garb while balancing bottles on their hats. Oy vey!)
“Fiddler on the Roof” looks lovingly upon tradition, the glue by which Tevye’s family remain together, and regards progess as an unstoppable and ultimately liberating force, which people like Tevye don’t particularly like, understandably, but who said they had to? They are all the products of their time, and his time was when he was the strict but loving father whose word was law in the household. This has been seen countless times on film, but what happens when this tradition is upended, less. It all starts when Tevye’s three eldest daughters, one after the other, express their wishes to be married to people he doesn’t like. His eldest Tzeitel is in love with Motel, the hapless tailor. Tevye doesn’t understand it, and doesn’t like it, especially because he has already married her off to the butcher, a man his own age, but after musing on it (in one of the many “On the Other Hand” soliquoys) agrees to it. His second daughter leaves him really no choice when she asks him for his blessing, and not his permission, as she is already pledged to Perchik, a forward-thinking student. Tevye is not very pleased but, after stroking his beard and weighing the pros and cons, gives his blessing and his permission.
His third daughter, however, elopes with a sensitive blond Russian Christian peasant, h0wever and marries outside the faith. The residents of Anatevka are evicted following an edict from the tsar, and cast out left and right. The film ends with Tevye and his wife and his remaining children on the road with all their belongings. As he pulls his wagon in the mud, he hears the strains of music and turns to see the fiddler following him and his family. With a smile and a jerk of his head, Tevye indicates the fiddler to follow and continues on their journey. I wished we could, too.