Fiddler on the Roof

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.