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.
Picking the top 10 movie dads was both easier and harder than picking the top 10 movie moms. Easier, because there were more candidates to choose from — and harder for the same reason!
Finding Nemo in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
(New review for 3-D rerelease) Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo is the best father-son story in all of Hollywood animation, and maybe animation generally. It’s also a stunningly gorgeous film that exploits the potential of computer animation like no film before it and few films after it.
Chronologically, The Lion King stands between the striking triumphs of the early Disney renaissance (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) and the bumpy deterioration of the latter 1990s (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, etc.). One way or another, it’s at the turning point between Disney’s creative renewal and its eventual decline. Fans might locate it near the pinnacle, along with Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t feel the love.
How can I describe the inexplicable power of My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki’s timeless, ageless family film? It is like how childhood memories feel, if you had a happy childhood — wide-eyed and blissful, matter-of-factly magical and entrancingly prosaic, a world with discovery lurking around every corner and an inexhaustible universe in one’s backyard.
The Incredibles is exhilarating entertainment with unexpected depths. It’s a bold, bright, funny and furious superhero cartoon that dares to take sly jabs at the culture of entitlement, from the shallow doctrine of self-esteem that affirms everybody, encouraging mediocrity and penalizing excellence, to the litigation culture that demands recompense for everyone if anything ever happens, to the detriment of the genuinely needy.
Here Crowe overturns another Hollywood convention in an equally strong performance as a boxer who isn’t a morally checkered, socially alienated single man with a history of extracurricular violence and troubling relationship issues (cf. Rocky, Raging Bull, The Boxer), but a wholly decent, self-controlled, devoted family man. He’s not only Cinderella, he’s Prince Charming too.
A tightly wound, middle-aged carpenter named Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) works with young boys at some sort of center. His inner life, his motives and emotions, aren’t revealed to us, and he doesn’t seem preoccupied with them himself. He wears a leather back brace, and has perhaps been injured at some point; and his work itself may be a similar sort of prop against some injury of his past.
The screenplay, well adapted by Robert Bolt from his own stage play, is fiercely intelligent, deeply affecting, resonant with verbal beauty and grace. Scofield, who for years starred in the stage play before making the film, gives an effortlessly rich and layered performance as Sir Thomas More, saint and martyr, the man whose determined silence spoke more forcefully than words, and who then spoke even more forcefully by breaking it.
The Emperor’s New Groove is really about another new groove — Disney animation’s. By 2000, the old Disney-as-usual wasn’t selling any more, and Disney was ready to begin trying new things.
Monsieur Vincent, director Maurice Cloche’s beautifully crafted, award-winning biopic of St. Vincent de Paul, celebrates the saint’s single-minded devotion to the poor without romanticizing the objects of his devotion and recipients of his charity.
Contriving to hide the boy from camp officials (who soon put the other children to death), Guido tells Giosue that the concentration camp is actually an elaborate role-playing game in which the "players" are competing for points in the hopes of winning a real battle tank. From then on, Guido will take any risk, court any danger, to maintain his son’s illusion that none of it is real.
This is a film about the legacy of fatherhood and the inheritance of sonship, about the unbreakable connection and the unbridgeable gap between one generation and the next. It is a celebration of masculinity, but it contemplates how men relate to women as an index of their manhood.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.