And so, I finally revisited a film that I watched more than 10 years ago on the local TV channel. Actually, there’s no point in saying that I watched it before because I barely remember anything from it, and watching it now feels as good as watching it for the first time. Strangely enough, the only part of the film I remember is the scene where the three ladies were singing about by the matchmaker. Hmm.
I realised that as I grew older, film musicals started to be not so much of my thing anymore. All the singing and dancing would have worked incredibly on the stage, but when it translates on the film medium it feels awkward and unrealistic. I mean, you can’t judge the actors by how realistic their acting is because in real life, nobody speaks in such a cartoonish manner before breaking out into a song and dance. Naturally, I try to toss aside all the cynicism and appreciate the films with an open mind…which works in some instances (The Sound Of Music, My Fair Lady) and not so much in others (Mary Poppins, The King And I URGH).
Thankfully, Fiddler on the Roof belongs to the former category. Actually, the story is one of the finest this genre has seen: I wouldn’t put it above Les Miserables, but the story is so full of depth and soul that I appreciate it more than the sugar-coating of The Sound of Music (which I actually enjoy). I love how well the themes are explored, like the loss of tradition and cultures, and the change in the political landscape in pre-revolutionary Russia. Despite covering so many themes and characters, it all gels together very well without coming off as convoluted. The story is centered on a Jewish milkman who sees the tradition of his village being slowly eroded away by politics and ideological changes. His three daughters go against the traditional method of matchmaking by marrying the men of their choices, with his third daughter even marrying outside the Jewish faith. Like all musicals, the acting is a bit stagey and everyone randomly erupts into song and dance, but at the same time, it never rings as phoney and superficial. The entire cast is truly like a group of bonded villagers, capturing the community spirit, the sentiments of the people and the heart of the story in their song and dance sequences (best exemplified by “To Life”). All these honesty in their performances makes the film such a fascinating watch, while ensuring the themes resonate with the viewer at the same time. Watching all these people sing and dance so happily makes you feel like joining in because of how they are genuinely having a good time. All these makes the ending song “Anatevka” more poignant, mainly because it was performed with such sadness and regret that you actually feel for the people as you watch them being evicted from their homes.
Naturally, the technical aspect of the film is flawless; the direction, the music, the breath-taking cinematography, the set, the costumes and the acting, especially Topol’s great leading performance, which would have been worthy of the win (it would have been a worthier win for a musical performance than say, the 1956 and 1964 winners). There’s so much naturalism and heartfelt emotions in his performance, despite the staginess and over the top nature of the whole character. I mean he talks to God directly and has some of the more over-the-top songs in the film (“If I Was A Rich Man), and yet it never rings false or comes off a shallow because of the simple honesty he infuses into his performance. I think playing the role many times on stage clearly helped, as he managed to identify with the soul of the character. Really great work.
I wouldn’t say it’s a film that I love immensely, but it’s one that I have very high respect for. My only issue is that it drags out for too long at times, and I think some of the song and dance sequences could have been reduced. I mean, that wedding dance was truly fun to watch, but it just felt like forever (it would have worked tremendously on the stage setting). Still, it’s far better than some films of its genre, and I have no problems giving 4.5/5.