Monday, October 24, 2011

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)


Fiddler on the roof is more than a movie.  It is an experience.  It brims with pathos and human emotions. It is overpowering, touching, meaningful.

Its protagonist, Tevye (Topol), is a very particular man in very particular circumstances.  He is many things: a Jew, a dairyman, a man in continual correspondence with God, a mensch, and a father.

Yet, he is every man, universal.

Ironically, this immanent cultural immersion opens to a transcendent understanding of the human condition before God.  Perhaps Jesus partly alluded to this possibility when he said to the Samaritan woman at the well that "salvation is of the Jews."

Tevye's life is contextualized in his shtetl, Anatevka: part cocoon due to his people's strong culture, part volcano due to the dominant culture's seething prejudices.

Ultimately, the only thing that maintains his precarious balance--that of a fiddler on the roof--is tradition.  Or, at least, so thinks Tevye at the movie's beginning.


He has five daughters that pry him from his certitudes.  Tevye is an exceptionally empathetic character whose face reveals the tumult--from pained incomprehension to astonished amazement--that his eldest daughters' romances, concessions to modernity, and the town-people's petty malice provoke in him.


He is a man filled with vitality and love, faith and understanding.  Change hurts, it surprises, it teaches him what he is capable of bearing.  Tseitel (Rosalind Harris) and Motel (Leonard Frey) are the first to test, to budge him.

"And look at my daughter's eyes, so hopeful."  His prior agreement with Lazar Wolf to cede her in marriage is no match for his father's heart.


This movie has so many famous songs--e.g., Matchmaker; If I Were a Rich Man; Sunrise, Sunset--that it's nearly redundant to mention them.  Aside from "Tradition," Noman's favorite is "Do You Love Me."

It speaks to marriage, and customs and the long, sui generis adventure with another person through and with whom new life comes into the world.  It is beautiful to see Tevye and Golde (Norma Crane) acknowledge to one another what they know but never express, or even consciously consider.


The number is occasioned by Hodel (Michele Marsh) and Perchick's (Michael Glaser) announcement of a free-thinking engagement stripped of all conformity to social norms.

Perchick is an idealist, a radical, a revolutionary.  Tevye can see the good man in him despite his non-conformity and skewed view of the world.  He also sees the love between them, and both consents to and blesses the union though it will take Hodel far away from her roots and aching father.

As with Tseitel and Motel, love will have its way despite traditions.  


The same is true for beloved Chava (Neva Small) who crosses a line by marrying Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock), a fellow intellectual but Russian Orthodox, that Tevye cannot bend his way around.

It is heartbreaking when Tevye tells Golde that Chava who is so dear to him, who was everybody's favorite child, is dead to them.  

They are both shattered, as was Noman.  What else can Tevye do, however, as his self-preservation is at stake?  He will break if he chooses his daughter over his people, his culture, his being.

It is a poignant moment, even tragic.  It is great art that rocks the viewer to his foundations.  We all have our limits.


The scenes and characters of village life are precious.  The movie affords a privileged look into a culture that is otherwise hidden to those who don't partake.

Special mention must be made of Tevye's dream, which is incomparable to any movie digression Noman remembers with the possible exception of Broadway Melody in "Singing in the Rain."  It is of that caliber.


The periodic spasming of cultural antipathy provides the irritating backdrop to life in the village.  It is what drove so many eastern-European Jews to America's shores in the early 20th century.  Despite the historicity of the events, however, they remain hard to fathom.

Tevye is a man of simple faith who lives in continual correspondence with God, mostly to kvetch, but not exclusively.  He needs God as he needs breath, and company.  He defines himself in relation to God and to his people.  His fatherhood, in contrast to mere paternity, derives from the culture these relations foster.

He is a tremendous example of fatherhood, friendship, faithful perseverance in duty despite hardships, and joie de vivre.  Tevye is always ready to break out into a dance, a joke, or a fictitious biblical citation. He is good, real, a man, a mensch.

Fiddler on the Roof is a movie that Noman has grown to cherish with successive viewings and each new No-child.  It makes him cry like a baby, and helps him understand his own life and vocation better.

No-family loves it, too.

Thank God for great art, this masterpiece, and the genius that inspired it.


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