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Dramatization of "Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy," by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991); originally published in Yiddish c. 1960, then in English c. 1983. The story: 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 ... Written by
Streisand's directorial debut is easily her most passionate and personal film to date. It was hailed by Steven Spielberg as the "best directorial debut since Citizen Kane," and I am in complete agreement. Streisand worked for more than 15 years on bringing this film to the big screen, and it was well worth the effort. YENTL is an absolute triumph Every single aspect of the film works flawlessly: the story is clever, the dialogue is extremely well-written, the cinematography is beautiful, and the performances are first-rate.
Many critics and fans found Streisand's performances in A STAR IS BORN and THE MAIN EVENT to be labored and overly-mannered. However, there is little doubt that she once again emerges as a true actress in Yentl. As a matter of fact, Streisand's pitch-perfect portrayal of Yentl/Anshel is quite possibly the best performance of her legendary career - I simply cannot think of any way her performance could be bettered. Broadway tenor Mandy Patinkin is terrific as the object of Yentl's affections; it is a role which should have made him a huge screen star. The character of Haddass could have easily turned into a thankless role, however Amy Irving brings a layered depth to the part that many other young actresses could have glossed over.
YENTL is also showcase for the wonderful music of Michael Legrand (with outstanding lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman), and the film uses these songs to brilliant effect. There are no production numbers, nor singing out in the street. Except for the finale, Streisand only sings when she is completely alone or silently as a voice-over. The songs take the place of spoken soliloquies and represent Yentl's private thoughts. This device has a great Shakespearean feel to it and (along with Streisand's ever passionate singing) help cement the film into the realm of fantasy. Though YENTL was infamously snubbed by the Academy Awards, justice was served when Streisand was awarded with the Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Director, the first female to ever win the latter honor.
Appropriately for a musical, the film's song score is first-rate. Composer Michael Legrand is an unrecognized genius, and his score is both complex and inviting. Alan and Marilyn Bergman have penned the lyrics to many of Streisand's best-loved recordings (the #1 hits "The Way We Were and "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," just to name a few), but they really outdo themselves here. Their words and Legrand's music complement each other perfectly, and their collaboration is largely the reason the film's score is as consistent and as cohesive as it is.
However, the main factor to YENTL'S artistic success is the phenomenal vocal performance of Barbra Streisand. The songs for this film were recorded twenty years after her official studio debut, and she has never sounded better than she does here. Whether the tone of the song is anguished ("Where Is It Written," "Tomorrow Night"), euphoric ("This Is One of Those Moments"), or incredibly sensual ("The Way He Makes Me Feel"), Streisand's hushed restraint and dramatic range are nothing short of incredible. Her phrasing is put to excellent use in "Will Someone Ever Look At Me That Way" and the three renditions of "No Wonder" (each with different lyrics and a different meaning), while both "No Matter What Happens" and "A Piece Of Sky" are terrific showcases for Streisand's astonishing vocal prowess.
YENTL also marks the first appearance of "Papa, Can You Hear Me," which instantly became one of Streisand's signature songs due largely to her intensely soulful performance. YENTL is a motion picture that is very close to the heart of many Streisand fans. It is a project that Streisand believed in with all her soul, and both the film and its soundtrack remain near the top of the list of the best things any popular artist has ever done.
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