Let’s return back to Russia, to a rural Jewish village deeply rooted in tradition. In this lively musical based off the musical play, Tevye (Topal) is a poor milkman with five daughters, three of which are quickly approaching marrying age. Traditionally, the town matchmaker finds suitable husbands, and she has heard that the town’s butcher, Lazer Wolf (Paul Mann), wants to marry Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris). But Tzeitel and her childhood friend Motel (Leonard Frey) pledged to marry long ago, he was just too scared to ask Tevye’s permission in time. Tevye is a good man who wants to see his daughter happy, so he consorts with God before breaking tradition and permitting Tzeitel to marry the man of her choosing. This isn’t the last time Tevye will have to deal with his daughters breaking traditions in marriage. And unfortunately, the Russians are planning a demonstration against the Jewish community that will damper the marriage and eventually change the village forever.
The idea of traditions changing is one of the main focuses in the film. Tzeitel and Motel are only the beginning. When Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser), a young man from Kiev arrives in town, he brings all his big city educated ideas with him. Tevye employs him to teach his daughters in payment of food and he opens second eldest daughter Hodel’s mind to many new ideas in politics and religion. At the wedding he even breaks tradition and dances with Hodel. As the Russian revolution brews, he must leave and when he is in trouble, Hodel breaks even more tradition and must leave home to help him.
With his extensive stage experience, Topal plays a perfect Tevye and earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. Before the film, he had already played the role over four hundred times on stage. One of my favorite traits about Tevye is his open conversations to both the audience and to God. With the audience, he explains how tradition dictates everything in his village and keeps us up to speed with the story. With God, he asks for guidance and humbly asks for a few things to be better. We never see him drop to his knees and pray, but he talks to God like a friend, very casual and open. Is that so traditional? Seeing Tevye open up like this is refreshing, the song If I Were a Rich Man is my favorite in the film.
Musicals are not my usual favorite, but Fiddler was absolutely wonderful. The whole film is filled with a passion and energy that just naturally overflows into traditional song and dance. Even the more solemn songs that are meant to portray different aspects of Jewish tradition are engaging and thought provoking.
Though the film is three hours long, it doesn’t feel like a long marathon of a film. The songs really do help break it up and the story is engaging and simple enough for all personalities to get involved. I would suggest this film for everybody, but would love even more to see Topal perform live on stage.
“Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!”