Favourite Films: Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Anyone who knows me will know that I love a good musical (I also love shit musicals as well!) And spend most of my day singing songs from a variety of musicals both from the stage and screen. None more so than a wide variety of songs from Fiddler on the Roof. Even as I write this, I am singing “To Life” to myself.

Admittedly, I’ve never seen it on stage which will be corrected at the next available opportunity but I make do with the brilliant film adaptation that looks at the challenging life of a Jewish community facing harassment from the current military regime. The film is told from the point of view from Tevye (Topol), the local milkman who laments his life as a poor man as he tries to navigate the matches of his three eldest daughters. Tevye is a man who likes to talk and sing about the importance of tradition but the life he leads is anything but. He misquotes scripture, goes back on a promise to let the widowed butcher marry his eldest daughter, Tzeital and allows a communist from Kiev to educate his younger daughters.

As faithful as can be to the stage production, Tevye frequently breaks the fourth wall by talking to the audience. He is an outsider to the wider society but it also seems that he is an outsider within his own community as well. In my mind, no one but Topol can pull the lead performance with such dedication and commitment to the character. It could be argued that Topol is synonymous with Tevye and vice versa but that is by no means an insult. Tevye is a deeply complex character, a man so ingrained in his religion and place in the community but there is also a struggle to fight against the ideals expected from him as he longs for more than what he has.

Now I can’t write why I love Fiddler and not talk about the songs. From the lively intro “Tradition” to Tevye’s iconic soliloquy “If I Were a Rich Man” and of course the beautiful “Sunrise, Sunset”. There aren’t as many songs in Fiddler as there are in other musicals but each song makes use of the space and the cast onscreen. No two songs sound the same and yet they will be stuck in your head one way or other.

Another aspect that I appreciate is the colour palette for the film. Strong hues of orange glow against the rural backdrop of browns and greens. It brings a natural richness and peace to the film, particularly during the opening credits. Aside from the sunset glow, the candlelit setting for Tzeital’s wedding to Motel is another beautifully created scene and is directed flawlessly. Despite being set in an open space in the village with everyone in attendance, the reception after the ceremony feels claustrophobic as chaos ensues.

With a three hour running time, it’s easy to think that watching a musical for that long would be daunting and (dare I say) boring, especially if you’re not necessarily an avid musical fan but the pacing is fantastic and it doesn’t feel that long.

What do you think of Fiddler on the Roof? Let me know in the comments below!

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