- Movie Rating -

Yentl (1983)

| December 23, 1983

When Yentl was over, I caught myself smiling.  I got caught up in the story and even teared up at one point while Barbra Streisand was singing.  I had doubted this movie.  What is this?  Yet another story about a woman pretending to be a man?  I thought of Victor Victoria of which I was not an admirer.  Just before this movie started a friend says to me, “This is something special.”  I had my doubts.  Maybe I fell into the same mindset of those who thought Streisand was crazy for wanting to write, produce, direct and star in an adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” and cast herself as a woman who passes for a 17-year-old boy.  It’ll never work!  But it does.

Yentl is a heart-warming story, a movie that is a celebration of family honor and tradition and the breaking down of the expected roles for women.  It contains great energy, spirited performances, great songs (sung by Streisand herself) and a complicated story that she somehow manages to keep on top of.

Streisand plays the title role, Yentl Mendel, a young woman from Eastern Europe living alone in a shtetl with her father, a rabbi.  It is 1904 and the roles for women are severely limited.  She goes into town to buy a fish and sees a cart loaded with books of Talmudic scholarship that she knows are off-limits to her.  She quickly forgets the fish.  She pretends to know her place, but in the Mendel household, the good rabbi gives Yentl an education – with the blinds closed, of course.  “We don’t have to hide my studies from God,” Yentl asks, “Then why from the neighbors.”  Her father reasons: “God would understand, I’m not so sure about the neighbors.”

Soon her father passes away and Yentl’s resolve becomes so strong to study the Talmud that she decides to dress as a boy in order to enter Yeshiva.  She cuts her hair, dons men’s clothes, changes her name to Anshel, and heads off on her mission.  Surprisingly, the ruse kinda works.  You could believe that she’s a male – perhaps not aged 17 – but definitely a male.

Naturally, there are a gaggle of problems that come from this.  Yentl gets past the community gatekeepers and even falls in love with one of them, the handsome Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin).  He is fooled by the ruse and thinks she’s a man.  He, meanwhile, is in love with the beautiful Hassan (Amy Irving) and wants to marry her but her father forbids it because he lied to the family.  So, Avigdor urges “Anshel” to marry Hassan so that he can at least visit her.  In a bizarre twist of fate, Yentl ends up married to Hassan and eventually the truth must come out.

In a lesser movie, this extremely complicated set of circumstances would make for a jumbled mess, slapstick cliches or emotional downfall that the movie doesn’t know how to deal with.  The wonder is that Streisand is not only able to keep it all together but when the moment of truth comes it is laid out with absolute sincerity and respect for the characters, their emotions and what they have learned from each other up to that point.  She realizes the very real stakes involved here in the feelings of these three characters.  Their reaction is real and we feel it.

Yentl is a movie made with loving care and not only does Streisand bring her heart to this story but she brings her voice.  Many times, in this movie she bursts into song in a way that we might expect would be a distraction but, of course, she sells the lyrics in a way that that become organic to the story.  It is really quite remarkable.

My only real quibble comes with the end of the movie, and in this I must echo a point made by Roger Ebert.  Yentl heads off on a steam ship to America without ever really resolving the problem of having married Hassan.  I don’t know if this was an oversight on Streisand’s part or perhaps, she didn’t know how to adequately resolve it, but it is a massive hole that is left open.  What happened with Hassan?  How did her family react?  What would the community elders have made of such a situation?  Maybe the story was already too complicated to get into that, but it was an issue that I felt needed to be addressed.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1983) View IMDB Filed in: Drama, Musical