Sunday, 17 April 2011

Fiddler on the Roof

Lowdown: The tribulations of a poor hard working Jew and father of five daughters in early 20th century Russia.
Although I have been exposed to Fiddler on the Roof many a time, this week was my first time at watching the 1971 film in its original English speaking soundtrack. It was also my first exposure to this material since high school, where we studied the Sholem Aleichem book on which Fiddler is based, Tevye the Milkman; in retrospect this was one of the better pieces of literature the Israeli Department of Education made us study by virtue of the fact it actually had some good humor in it. Before the book and as a child I got to watch Fiddler on the Roof several times with Hebrew dubbing (probably the only feature film I ever watched dubbed to Hebrew) as well as the theater play.
Fiddler on the Roof follows the character of Tevye, or Tuvya the way the name would be pronounced in Israel today (the English version of the same name, based on the Greek translation from Hebrew, is Tobias). Played by Haim Topol, the role of Tevye is one of those roles that became so associated with the actor playing them it’s hard to tell them apart.
Tevye is a Jew living in a village under Tsar control during the early 20th century with his wife and five daughters. He is poor, hence the song everyone knows from Fiddler (“if I was a rich man”), but he is a hard working decent man. Tevye’s life, as the life of his fellow villagers, is run according to the rules of tradition.
The plot has Tevye facing challenge after challenge when the tradition that made is life so easy – in the sense that it enables life to go on without asking too many questions – is broken time and time again by his daughters as they seek to defy tradition and marry the people they love. In that sense, Fiddler on the Roof is fairly similar if not incredibly similar to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, only that the plot revolves around the father rather than the second daughter (a note to Austen’s lawyers: sue!). Me, I just enjoyed watching a film whose essence is around the application of common sense to defy silly traditions. However, there is more to Fiddler: there are also the challenges stemming from the anti-Semitism that was so rampant in Russia at the time to spice Tevye’s life up.
I found it interesting to note how accurate the depiction of Jewish life in Eastern Europe at the time the film is meant to take place is. Essentially, it depicts Jews living amongst their own, in closed communities near but also secluded from the gentiles. There are economic connections between the two groups but they don’t interact much socially; when they do, those that do are considered rogue and are thrown out of their communities. In that sense of experiencing life a hundred years ago, an age not only before the Internet but also before the car, Fiddler on the Roof is pretty good.
Of course, accurate depiction is severely hurt given the musical interruptions that plague the film so often. It seems like the actors cannot utter more than one sentence before bursting into song, which I find quite annoying (yes, I generally dislike musicals, Ok?). That said, Fiddler on the Roof sort of grows on you; songs or no songs, I was quite curious to see what will take place with our hero and his family. I guess this means that Fiddler on the Roof, musical or not, serves as good entertainment in addition to being a bit of an education.
P.S. Also entertaining was the recognition of Michael Glaser’s young face as one of Tevye daughter’s suitors. Glaser grew up to star in Starsky & Hutch later.
Best scene: I liked the way Tevye’s inner thoughts/dilemmas were portrayed each time a daughter gave him a hard time. Instead of doing something technically complicated, Fiddler on the Roof resorts to placing the offending daughter far away and slightly out of focus. You know what? Simple as this technique is, it works.
Technical assessment: Once again we have ourselves a Panavision film (wide aspect ratio of 2.35:1 or so) that is presented on TV in the old aspect ration of 1.33:1. That is, almost half of the film is cropped for no good reason. This time the criminal was ABC, and the question has to be asked – why do TV channels continue to broadcast copies designed for standard definition viewing years after we’ve been made to upgrade to widescreen? Is it so nice to see half a face talking to another half face?
Overall: Educational light entertainment at 3 out of 5 stars.


Uri said...

ah? didn't we go to the same high-school?

I never studied it.

Maybe it was during one of the lessons I missed due to Bobble Bubble?

Moshe Reuveni said...

I remember reading it and I know I wouldn't have read it if I wasn't forced to... It wasn't one of the main events, though.