Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ardent Barbra Streisand fans have made her movie Yentl into a hotly desired DVD. The only release to date is a bare bones Region 2 disc from 2004. Streisand supervised and authorized the transfer, audio and extras on this two-disc director's cut. As the singer and actress's first film as director, Yentl means a great deal to her personally.
Streisand took on a difficult assignment for her first film, confecting an elaborate showcase for her talents. Already well established as a musical and comedy performer, she attempts to apply those strengths into an essentially serious story. A young Jewish girl in 1903 Russia attempts to pass herself off as a boy, but the movie is no Some Like it Kosher. Barbra's basic direction is very good, and some of her song staging is excellent. As with all Streisand movies, it helps if one is a confirmed fan, but all in all Yentl is quite an accomplishment.
Frustrated because women aren't allowed to study the Talmud, Yentl (Barbra Streisand) disguises herself as a male Yeshiva student. As "Anschel" she is accepted for religious studies in the city. Anschel's cross-dressing deception causes no end of trouble when she finds herself attracted to her student roommate Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin). Worse, when a problem in Avidgor's background suddenly makes his marriage to his sweetheart Hadass (Amy Irving) unacceptable in Jewish society, Anschel is pressured into taking his place as a prospective groom. Too confused to object, Anschel / Yentl finds herself being rushed into marriage -- with another woman.
Yentl is a beautifully realized production filmed in Czechoslovakia and England; David Watkin's cinematography is warm and attractive at all times. The interesting subject matter keys nicely with Streisand's "nothing's impossible" motto. Jewish culture in Eastern Europe invested in a class of intellectual theologians that studied religious scriptures both as God's law and as philosophy; the community was proud to support them. Yentl's stubborn refusal to accept the rule that only men can take part in this higher learning makes for a female empowerment story.
It's essential that Yentl be especially charming, because her character isn't necessarily all that likeable. In the name of personal freedom Yentl deceives her friends and teachers, a basic dishonesty that grates against the moral lessons that so inspire her in Yeshiva class. It's good that Yentl escapes from her tiny village, because once her beloved papa has passed, she expresses only contempt for rural people and rules. The bulk of the movie shows Yentl succeeding in her impersonation and proving herself as a scholar, yet the essential selfishness of her character isn't all that attractive. Yentl is the first person to suffer, as she has to watch her "boyfriend" court another girl. Poor Hadass marries Anschel in good faith and is confused when her new husband avoids sex. Yentl may indeed free Avigdor and Hadass from unjust circumstances, but I don't recall either of them asking for the favor.
With every woman in sight trapped in a restrictive social role, we sympathize with Yentl's rebellion. But by the end we're not certain what our heroine has learned or how her character has grown. In a deleted scene, Yentl happens upon the merchant who refused to let her buy a book. She's rude to the man in a way that makes her seem stubbornly intolerant. (spoiler) When Yentl finally moves on to a fresh start in the New World, we wonder how happy she can possibly be there. Jewish society in turn-of-the-century New York isn't going to be that much more tolerant of a female intellectual; Yentl will have to become a suffragette or a radical like Emma Goldman. But were those convention-busting political progressives religiously inclined, as is Yentl? 1
The script and Streisand's careful direction guarantee plenty of humor. The picture becomes bawdy when Avigdor invites Anschel to skinny-dip with the rest of the Yeshiva boys, and Anschel and Hadass's wedding night has some good laughs as well. Michel Legrand's songs are mostly inspirational ballads, with Tomorrow Night an amusing comedy number that segues into a wedding theme. Ever since her TV show Color Me Barbra Streisand has proven herself the most qualified director by far to direct Barbara Streisand. The moving camera often seems to be caressing her.
Does Streisand convince in the guise of Anschel, the Yeshiva boy? Sometimes she looks like she's doing a Woody Allen impersonation, and at other times she seems far too feminine to deceive anyone. Avidgor even compliments Anschel on "his" decorating skills. It is said that when playing male, Streisand had the camera favor the side of her face she normally avoids, but I haven't watched the film with this in mind. In the end, I suppose that it's a theatrical/filmic convention that Ginger Rogers can fool people by dressing like an eleven year-old, and that Julie Andews' Victor Victoria can successfully pass herself off as "a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman."
Mandy Patinkin and Amy Irving do fine work in somewhat constricted roles; the spotlight is always on Barbra. Irving is especially good as the new bride -- Hadass accepts her "husband's" aloof nature without seeming a total dolt or a pitiful victim. Nehemiah Persoff is amusing as Yentl's father Reb Mendel, drawing the curtains so the neighbors will not discover that he's giving his daughter religious training. Steven Hill also makes a strong impression as a wealthy merchant who welcomes Avigdor, until it is discovered that his potential son-in-law has a scandalous family secret to hide.
MGM's Two-Disc Director's Cut of Yentl is presented in an attractive golden-hued enhanced transfer supervised for this DVD by the director. Streisand introduces the film on camera. The viewer has a choice of the theatrical version or a slightly longer Extended Cut, which adds several minutes of deleted scenes. The remixed audio will please fans of both Streisand, composer-songwriter Michel Legrand and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Striesand speaks her piece on the feature commentary, free-associating on her movie and expressing the reasons she holds it so personally dear. She's joined by her co-producer Rusty Lemorande. A long gallery of deleted scenes appears, transferred from work print materials.
The extras will probably thrill fans of All Things Barbra. Virtually all of them came from Streisand's own music, film and tape archives, and all were personally approved by her. She gives the extras an introduction and returns periodically to explain the particulars of some of them. Barbra's Director's Reel is a selection of outtakes that demonstrate that she served as an active director, often prompting her fellow players in the middle of a take. The process goes out of control in one confrontation scene with Mandy Patinkin; while the actor rages over the top, Streisand tries to stay in character and simultaneously give camera instructions.
A number of the extras are unlike anything presented on DVD for a vintage musical. The Rehearsal Process revisits Streisand's elaborate preparations for the musical numbers. She rehearsed some of them in private homes in Los Angeles with only a temp track, filming with a Betacam home video rig. Marilyn and Alan Bergman, their daughter Julie and even Michel Legrand take part in the elaborate camera stagings, which are often very close to the final blocking. Dates place the rehearsals months ahead of principal photography, proving that Streisand's direction choices were her own work. Later rehearsals take place in England on partially completed sets, with a professional video crew. Editorial comparisons show them to be very close to the final versions.
A couple of songs not used in the movie are heard in temp form and may be "new discoveries" for the Streisand Faithful. A new montage of storyboards accompanies one song, while another is a comparatively blurry Betacam storyboard montage most probably assembled by Rusty Lemorande in 1982. 8mm home movies of Streisand's scouting trip for Czech locations show her walking through some settings that appear in the final film. She narrates, to better explain who is with her and what they're looking for. Still galleries are included along with a montage called My Wonderful Cast and Crew. We see a new take of the film's final shot on the Russian steamship, and a selection of BTS footage, most of it culled from a 1983 EPK package.
Don't think for a moment that Yentl isn't a big deal to Barbra Streisand's core fan group. Here's a link to Matt Howe and Paul Katz's enthusiastic On Camera Video Review of the extras on Disc 2. They're authentic and sincere movie review personalities!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good ++
Supplements: Commentary, introductions, deleted scenes, trailer, still galleries, The Rehearsal Process rehearsal-feature comparisons, storyboards with deleted songs, 8mm location hunt movies, My Wonderful Cast and Crew montage.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 7, 2009
1. Perhaps Streisand should have donned makeup to play Yentl as a 99 year-old, and pretended to be a contributing "witness" for the talking-head sections of Warren Beatty's Reds.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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