Yentl (1983)

Barbra Streisand’s directorial debut follows the titular character (Streisand), a young woman living in an Ashkenazi Jewish community in the early 20th century who disguises as a man to study in a Yeshiva after her father passes away. Based on the short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer and cowritten by Streisand and Jack Rosenthal, Yentl is a film about subverting the cultural and societal norm as well as conflicts between religion and morality. Yentl Mendel is constantly questioning the way of life in her village and is looked down upon by the townspeople for being unmarried with no prospect of settling down. It is only when she disguises as a man called Anshel that she finds a place of belonging and her views are accepted and even celebrated. Problems occur when Yentl begins to fall in love with her mentor, Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin) who is in love with his ex-fiancée Hadass (Amy Irving) who then in turn falls in love with Anshel. It is the very definition of a love triangle and allows the film to have some lighter moments such as Anshel and Hadass’ wedding night. Winning Streisand a Best Director award at the Golden Globes making her the first and to date only woman to win the accolade, Yentl marks a huge step for female filmmakers in the mainstream thanks to its star appeal and critical and commercial success.

Streisand as director is really remarkable. You can sense the passion that she has for this film. Although there are trademark comedic moments and musical numbers that are identifiable with a Streisand picture, there is no doubt that the dramatic elements and aesthetic allow Streisand to explore a darker approach that we hadn’t really seen from her on film previously. Streisand’s female gaze gives this film a new perspective that we haven’t seen before in film. Instead of condemning Yentl’s choices, we view Anshel as a sensitive man who isn’t afraid of his vulnerability despite living in a male dominated environment. Where it not for Streisand’s feminine interpretation, the performance of Anshel could have slipped into caricature and taken away from the mature themes that the film discusses. Streisand lends a heavy feminist focus as she disputes why a woman cannot have the same outlook and expectation of a man while still appreciating the jobs that the women do. Yentl can be viewed as a crossover between genders and she doesn’t really fit in and altering her gender isn’t an issue. The pursuit of knowledge and equality overtakes the ideals expected of her. There are so many different readings that could be made when watching this film. It has been argued that Yentl could be considered as a queer film thanks to its discussions on gender and sexuality which adds a more progressive meaning to the story.

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In terms of her performance, it’s best to view Streisand as playing two roles rather than one such is her success in distinctly differentiating the two. Her Yentl is typical Streisand: sassy, witty and strong with an ambition to subvert the norm. This is the Streisand that we have grown to love in her previous cinematic outings. What is different about Yentl is that she is aware that she is trapped within her local community. When reciting the Talmud at her father’s funeral, it becomes such a scandal and causes widespread gossip. The transition period between Yentl and Anshel comes from her journey to the Yeshiva which includes her heartbreaking rendition of “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” where Yentl begs her father for forgiveness for her decision to disguise as a man in pursuit of an education. She sits alone in the forest at nighttime with nothing but a candle for light and it is then when the realisation of what she has done comes to fruition. It is also the point where she knows that there is no turning back and thus has to embody the identity of Anshel. Streisand’s Anshel takes a bit of getting used to in the same way as Yentl getting used to her new identity. We witness Anshel practicing his tone of voice and mannerisms, making sure not to appear too feminine without risking his integrity.

Mandy Patinkin does a wonderful job as Avigdor, Anshel’s friend and mentor at the Yeshiva who is initially engaged to Hadass. Avigdor isn’t afraid to be vulnerable to Anshel and his other male friends but the idea of being vulnerable to Hadass or her mother disgusts him. He doesn’t allow himself to get involved in any confrontation and is always calm when in her company. Avigdor seems so progressive when we are first introduced because he is so accepting of Anshel but it is easy to forget that Anshel is Yentl and he has no idea. When he spouts ideas about a woman’s true place in the home and that Hadass cannot think for herself, it comes across as a shock and ignorant but despite his intelligence, Avigdor is still a product of an environment that looks down on women. In another brilliant supporting turn, Amy Irving was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in her role as Hadass. When we first meet Hadass, she appears to fulfill all the criteria of the perfect woman and seems to do everything at the men’s commands. What we don’t realise is that she has successfully supressed any feeling of rebellion and it is when she is married to Anshel that she shares her aspirations to learn more. Yentl is in the middle of these two characters and yet it is because of Yentl that they are drawn closer together and allow themselves a more progressive and happier life.

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The amazing music is composed by Michel Legrand, one of the best composers that the film industry had to offer. From his imagination we were given the incredible song “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” composed by Legrand with lyrics written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The trio won an Oscar for Best Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score. In true Legrand fashion, the music is whimsical and brings an essence of fairytale to the story. The musical numbers are far and few between but the score itself is wonderfully subtle when you compare to Legrand’s catalogue such as the music for Les Parapluies De Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). The songs are suited to Streisand’s amazing vocal range, especially the aforementioned song but rather than being full of show-stopping numbers like the ones in Funny Girl, Legrand makes use of Yentl’s male identity and gives the songs a lower key register so Yentl is singing as if she were a man herself.

Overall, Yentl is a film that has helped pave the way for female filmmakers in mainstream cinema. It is a film not without flaws but it has beauty in its ability to discuss ideas that are considered taboo. Even within the Orthodox setting in the early 20th century, there are still similarities that Streisand is able to get across to link with the modern day. Yentl is not a film that Streisand wishes to make all about herself despite directing and starring in it but the story of how women are often subjected to misogyny and not afforded the chances of their male counterparts. It is equal parts drama and musical and a smaller part comedy which encapsulates Yentl’s character.

What did you think of Yentl? Let me know in the comments below!

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