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In an Ashkenazic shtetl in Poland, Yentl Mendel is the boyishly klutzy daughter and only child of long widowed Rebbe ("Talmud Teacher") Mendel, who teaches Talmud (a codification of Jewish Law) to local boys - and to Yentl, but secretly because girls were not allowed to learn the law in those days. When her father dies, Yentl is all alone in the world. She takes the momentous decision to leave the village and - disguised as a boy and calling herself by the name of her late brother, Anshel - seeks and gets admitted to a Yeshiva, to study the texts, traditions, subtleties and complexities of Torah, Talmud, etc. She befriends Avigdor who is engaged to Haddas, but her family discovers his brother committed suicide so they call off the wedding (in case Avigdor possesses the same madness). Anshel then finds "him"-self in the awkward position of being called into service as substitute bridegroom, so that the wedding can go ahead and Haddas will have a husband. It is a marriage that never ... Written by
"Yentl" is based on the story "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" by the late Isaac Bashevis Singer, the last great Yiddish author. Yentl is the bright, intelligent daughter of Reb (Rabbi) Mendl, a widower, played by the great Nehemiah Persoff. She looks after her father's household and almost by osmosis learns the Torah (Pentateuch) and the Talmud by listening to the lessons of the young men who come to study with her father. She also wants to become a Jewish scholar, but in the rigidly patriarchal society of Eastern European Jewry, only boys are allowed to study. After her father's death, she decides to disguise herself as a boy to get into a yeshiva (school). Now going by the name Anschel, she succeeds in getting into a yeshiva, and becomes close friends, and eventually falls in love, with fellow student Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin; Avigdor is Hebrew for "father protects"), who is in an arranged betrothal to a beautiful young woman named Hadass (Amy Irving). But when Hadass's family learns Avigdor's brother committed suicide, the wedding is called off. Yentl/Anschel is then selected to marry Hadass. Avigdor supports this, because he sees this as a way to remain close to his friend Anschel (Yentl) and Hadass. Yentl/Anschel goes through with the marriage, and manages by clever subterfuge to live with Hadass but never consummate the marriage or reveal "himself" to be a woman. Eventually, Yentl/Anschel and Avigdor go away for a few days, and Yentl/Anschel reveals her secret to him. But rather than accepting her as a woman and returning her love, Avigdor rejects her. Avigdor returns to Hadass, and the movie ends with Yentl on a ship to (we suppose) America to make a new start, where presumably she will change her name to Fanny Brice and become a big star in vaudeville, then years later, as an old woman, be reduced to visiting Max Bialystock's office for some lovin'.
Visually, "Yentl" looks perfect. The village, the landscape, the people, their language and dress, are a convincing reconstruction of the lost world of the shtetl and its denizens. The actors look perfect, too, although there are problems: It's a stretch to believe that Barbra Streisand could pass herself off as a boy for an extended period, but if the Hilary Swank character in "Boys Don't Cry" could do it, I guess we can suspend disbelief for the duration of "Yentl." Streisand puts in a capable performance, as do Mandy Patinkin and the actors in the other major roles. You have to figure that Hadass was pretty dumb to be hoodwinked the way she was, but I guess that's supposed to be part of the "charm" of the story.
However, "Yentl" suffers from a major problem: The music. What cabbagehead decided that Michel Legrand would be the right composer for this movie?!? His score was completely inappropriate, and Streisand's constant singing under the action drove me crazy. Barbra, shut up once in a while and let the action speak for itself! It was like "Fiddler on the Roof" collides with "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," and that's the kind of road accident I'd rather not see. I suppose that in order to get the project made, Streisand had to agree to sing in the film. Would making "Yentl" into a typical musical, à la "Fiddler," have ruined it? Probably a whole lot less than it was ruined by Legrand's music. After all, "Fiddler," which came out 12 years before "Yentl," had a number of dark moments as well as some light and humorous scenes, and the songs worked. But the score of "Fiddler on the Roof" deliberately used musical motifs and themes derived from and inspired by the rich musical tradition of Eastern European Jewry. They should have stuck with that very serviceable approach. The clash of the music and the rest of the film is a fatal flaw from which "Yentl" does not recover.
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