L’Chaim! Life itself, joyous and tragic, is the subject of the boisterous, comic, heartbreaking vision of Fiddler on the Roof.
In this tale of rural life in a Ukrainian village on the eve of the Russian Revolution are faith and struggle, happiness and suffering, passionate youth and tired old age, idealism and practicality, money and poverty, compromise and conviction, and, above all, constancy and change.
The themes are universal, but the sensibility is distinctively Jewish. The story of Tevye the milkman of Anatevka and of his daughters began as a series of short stories by Ukranian writer Sholom Aleichem before becoming a stage musical in the 1960s, and from the joyous opening celebration of "Tradition" to the terrible specter of exile and diaspora in the finale, the production rings with Old Testament feeling.
There are echoes of the questioning of Job in Tevye’s tart one-way dialogues with God (including the raucous "If I Were a Rich Man"), but also traditional piety in "Sabbath Prayer," the joyful psalm-like recounting of God’s saving acts in "Miracle of Miracles," and the eternal verities of Ecclesiastes in the haunting chorus of "Sunrise, Sunset."
Director Norman Jewison (a Gentile whose surname is of English origin) shrewdly cast Palestinian-born Jewish actor Topol as Tevye, passing over the popular Zero Mostel who originated the role on Broadway. Topol carries the film effortless on his broad, round shoulders, and makes the quietly bittersweet "Do You Love Me?" as memorable as the boisterous "To Life."
Jewison’s direction displays flashes of brilliance: At one point during "If I Were a Rich Man," as Tevye fantasizes about enjoying untold blessings from heaven, the camera looks up at him standing in the barn loft above all the animals, in the place of God as it were, pouring out his gifts to those below — but in the end, as he sings the trenchant last lines, it’s the camera that looks down from on high while Tevye is is firmly back on earth.
At the heart of Fiddler on the Roof is, of course, tradition; the title itself refers to the precariousness of life against which tradition is a buffer and support. But the story is also about the erosion and transformation of tradition, and its attitude toward this process is deceptively tricky to pin down.
Over the course of the story, Tevye’s daughters make increasingly unconventional choices that reflect a departure from tradition; and in general the viewer is expected to sympathize with them. Indeed, as Christian film writer Peter T. Chattaway has observed, Tevye himself expresses tacit approval of a young suitor for his eldest daughter’s hand precisely for standing up for himself against Tevye’s appeal to tradition ("Now he’s talking like a man").
On the other hand — in Tevye’s characteristic phrase — each nontraditional choice is followed by increasingly grave misfortune; and, while only one of these misfortunes is really directly connected to the break from tradition, still on a poetic level these woes suggest that abandoning tradition is no light matter.
Fiddler makes no effort to distinguish explicitly between essential and inessential tradition, but Tevye is finally able to bend so far and no further; he recognizes that "the old ways were once new," but not everything is up for negotiation. It’s tempting to joke that the net effect of Tevye’s principles is something like "Better Red than Christian," but of course that would be both inaccurate and anachronistic, since Tevye has no real understanding of revolutionary Perchik’s "strange ideas," and the concrete evil of Soviet Marxist rule has yet to come to pass.
Fiddler is almost unique in daring to combine humor and buffoonery with genuine moral outrage at the tragedy and horror of antisemitic persecution (about the only other films to pull it off are Benigni’s Life is Beautiful and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator). It’s a risky strategy, but in Fiddler laughter and romance help reach past the defenses we often bring to a serious "message" film, and enable us to see Tevye and his family and neighbors not as characters in a tragedy but as ordinary people like ourselves.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.