In 1904 Poland, women are forbidden to study the Torah under Jewish law. But 17-year-old Yentl (Barbra Streisand) has a thirst for knowledge and cannot abide such strictures. Her Papa (Nehemiah Persoff) is tolerant, but when he dies, Yentl leaves home and, disguised as a male student, Anshel, enters a Yeshiva (academy for the advanced study of Jewish texts). There she falls in love with fellow student Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), who is oblivious to the ruse, but he is engaged to Hadass (Amy Irving). How long can Yentl continue with this pretence; and is she willing to sacrifice her studies for love?
Review by Keith Lofthouse:
She sings. Boy, how the "boy-girl" sings! She acts, writes and directs for the first time. She plunged her own money into an ambitious personal project which studio after studio rejected as hard evidence of Streisand megalomania. Finally, there was a nibble from United Artists and so determined was Streisand to nail them to a deal that she sang the entire (Oscar winning!) score to the head of the studio, privately ... and then (facetiously) offered him the plumb role as her Papa. The diva insisted that she was born to recreate Yentl, a project which she cherished and nurtured for 12 years as if it were a child ... and somehow she achieved the barely possible, transforming Isaac Singer's short story about a woman's right to forge a place in the world into something warm, wondrous and musically...adventurous.
Shot in England and Czechoslovakia and set in Poland in 1904, it begins with the quizzical girl attempting to buy books from a street peddler and being refused. "Serious books for men," he cries; "picture books for women!" Custom forbids that learned volumes be made available to Jewish women, but Yentl has a brilliant mind, hungry for nourishment. Very soon, she sings of her frustrations: "Why have the thirst, if not to drink? What a waste, to have a taste, of things that can't be mine." Behind closed doors her tolerant Papa coaches her as if she was a son, but when he dies, Yentl continues her urgent search for wisdom. She disguises herself as a male student, Anshel, and enters a rabbinical school in the clothes of a man. Anshel is befriended by Avigdor, handsome and oblivious, and of course, Anshel/Yentl falls in love with him. But Avigdor is engaged to the beautiful Hadass (Irving's Oscar nominated performance) who is also gifted, but is repressed by her stern father, a stickler for tradition. Things get complicated; doubt is cast on Avigdor's suitability for Hadass and once when circumstances compel Anshel/Yentl to share a bed with Avigdor, she covers her femininity and manages to avert her eyes from his nakedness.
It's absurdly contrived (but profoundly amusing) when Hadass, in turn, falls for Anshel, given that Streisand's smooth complexion, high cheekbones and pitched voice are unmistakably girlish. She was all of 40 at the time and was hardly convincing as a teenage boy and for some viewers this leap of faith will be too great a hurdle. Of the nine songs, several are too long and too introspective. They are more monologue than melody, but they were deliberately composed that way to reflect the dour lessons of the Talmud - not that anyone knew that at the time. Streisand, however, was never in more command of that voice in her heart-wrenching tribute to her dead father, the Oscar nominated Papa, Can You Hear Me?
Her soaring finale comes with A Piece Of Sky in which, I swear, she holds the last magnificent note for a monumental 20 seconds. And, whatever you think of the story, which is far beyond universal appeal, the film is beautifully shot, in sombre colours and autumn tones with compositions that are reminiscent of Rembrandt. Papa Can You Hear Me was released as a single and didn't make the Top 100...but I have the soundtrack, and A Piece Of Sky still puts the wine glasses at risk.
Published December 22, 2005
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YENTL: DVD (PG)
CAST: Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving, Nehemiah Persoff
DIRECTOR: Barbra Streisand
SCRIPT: Barbra Streisand, Jack Rosenthal (based on the short story, Yentl The Yeshiva Boy by Isaac Bashevis Singer
RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes
PRESENTATION: Widescreen 1.66:1. Letterbox. Dolby digital. Languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, German. Subtitles: English captions, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Swedish, Fnnish, Norwegian, Danish, Hebrew.
SPECIAL FEATURES: None
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Sony
DVD RELEASE: December 12, 2005