1971 / Best Actor / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor

Film #265: Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Onto our next musical film arrived which is Fiddler on the Roof a movie that documents the lives of one Jewish family living in Tsarist Russia in the early 20th century.

Our narrator throughout the film is Tevye, played by Chaim Topol, a simple man who often bemoans the fact that God has given him five daughters. One of the film’s unique narrative devices is the fact that Tevye regularly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. Tevye tells us about the small Jewish community that lives constantly in fear of the larger Christian community that neighbours the village. The Jews and the Christians live in peace but we get the impression that our characters are constantly under threat from attack. The bulk of the film’s story sees Tevye’s three eldest daughters all find love and marry someone they love, rather than someone who has been chosen for them by the town’s matchmaker. Eldest daughter Tzeitel wishes to marry her poor childhood sweetheart Motel while second daughter Anatevka later accepts a proposal from idealistic Ukrainian scholar Perhick. Though Teyve’s wife Golde disapproves, he manages to talk her around while at the same time the younger generation prepare to change the way things are done. However, the second half of the film gets bleaker as Teyve’s community is moved from their homes by the Christians, while he also disowns third daughter Chava after she secretly marries one of the Christian boys. Though ultimately the entire community is moved from their homes there is a sense that things will only get better.

Of the three musical films I’m writing about, I would say that Fiddler on the Roof is definitely the least memorable. Indeed, probably the strongest element of the entire film is Topol’s lead performances as he really makes a connection with the audience right from the beginning of the picture. His warmth and passion for the character really makes you believe in Tevye’s motivations and you feel for his plight throughout his story. There are only a few songs that are truly memorable with ‘If I were a Rich Man’ and ‘Matchmaker’ being the two prime examples. In addition, there are a number of interesting set pieces most notably the scene at Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding where Perhick encourages the men and women to dance together. I felt that director Norman Jewison’s decision to film on location in Yugoslavia helped to enhance the authenticity of the piece. However, at almost three hours in length, the film really started to drag and I felt the bleak aspect of the final third of the movie really added to this fatigue. While Fiddler on the Roof isn’t a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, it wasn’t one that I truly connected with in the way that I did with other musical films I’ve watched for this blog.


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