Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A really Jewy musical.
What did I get? Despite its considerable popularity, I was expecting Fiddler on the Roof to be a pill, not candy. Shows you what I know. Fiddler is a remarkably appealing movie, a truly cinematic musical à la The Sound of Music, only with more gravitas and stylistic coherence. The songs are really good, and the movie’s great warmth prevents the subject matter from becoming distancing. Compliments to the writers behind the original musical, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein; to the director, Norman Jewison; and to the lead actor, Chaim Topol. Those five people, more than any other, are responsible for the highly enjoyable movie experience that Fiddler is.
My trifling researches yielded the surprising information that Jewison, despite his name, is not a Jew. (This is apparently a common misconception; Jewison is a Protestant.) When I learned this, Fiddler began to make a bit more sense. When you’re making a movie steeped in the culture of a specific people and especially when that people has an obvious historical grievance at hand, it can be salutary to have an outsider to the group serve as director. It’s easier for an outsider to see when it’s “too much” for those who do not already have a stake. I suppose it’s also true that Jews are obliged to think about these things more than most ethnic groups.
That line Fiddler toes to perfection. Odd to say about a movie that dwells so much Jews and Jewishness, but it wears its ethnicity and religion lightly, mostly because of the incredibly engaging presence of Topol, as Tevye. Given to grumbling to God, Tevye’s impiety leavens the material and adds humor; once events take a darker turn, he assumes the Everyman qualities of maltreated peasants everywhere.
Jewison filmed much of the movie outdoors, made sure to work in the landscape, and the browns and greens and golds of rural life became a sturdy palette from which the movie never deviates. This gave Fiddler its marvelous evenness of tone; you really feel that the movie emanated from a single consciousness.
The Holocaust, a fresher nightmare in 1971, supplies Fiddler‘s subtext, and it permitted the filmmakers to elide graphic representation of the horrors Russian Jews experienced around 1905. Nobody is killed or raped; very little property is damaged; the main Cossack is benign. Acutely aware of the tragedies in store for the Jewish people, viewers can fill in the blanks for themselves. I find myself unconsciously crediting Jewison for this strategy, but obviously Bock, Harnick, and Stein were the ones who made that call.
What here smacks of 1971? In a certain way, a lot. This may be the most legible and mature of the big studio musicals in the post-Sound of Music lineage, and the midcentury middle-class audience that allowed it to come into being didn’t stretch very far beyond 1971. So there was only a small window when this movie would have made any sense.
IMDB score: 7.8
My score: 9
Director: Norman Jewison
Writer: Joseph Stein
Starring: Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michèle Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser
IMDB synopsis: In the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Jews and Orthodox Christians live in the little village of Anatevka in the pre-revolutionary Russia of the Czars. Among the traditions of the Jewish community, the matchmaker arranges the match and the father approves it. The milkman Reb Tevye is a poor man that has been married for twenty-five years with Golde and they have five daughters. When the local matchmaker Yente arranges the match between his older daughter Tzeitel and the old widow butcher Lazar Wolf, Tevye agrees with the wedding. However Tzeitel is in love with the poor tailor Motel Kazoil and they ask permission to Tevye to get married that accepts to please his daughter. Then his second daughter Hodel (Michele Marsh) and the revolutionary student Perchik decide to marry each other and Tevye is forced to accept. When Perchik is arrested by the Czar troops and sent to Siberia, Hodel decides to leave her family and homeland and travel to Siberia to be with her beloved Perchik…