directed by Barbra Streisand
USA 1983

 

I confess I have always loved this movie. I saw it twice in the theatre and I'm pretty sure I watched it again on laserdisc. Since this 2-disc Director's Extended Edition from MGM is the first ever Region 1 DVD release, it's been at least 20 years for sure since I've seen it on video. Have the years dulled my love of this film? Not a bit. If anything, I appreciate Yentl even more now that I can put my objections in perspective.

Reactions to this movie when it came out were polarized. Many responded warmly to the sentiment (girl makes the impossible happen in a man's world) and the music and lyrics were like from heaven (ditto my comment about sentiment). We all wanted to see how Barbra would manage every aspect of production short of actually shooting the picture and building the sets – or so it was posed. She does indeed have major screen credits: her name can be seen as writer, director, producer and star. She may not have written the music, but she sings every song like an angel, and there are enough of them to fill an album, which it did.

The Academy pretty much ignored the film in the major categories, though it did win for Michel Legrand and the Bergmans in one of the Best Music categories and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Amy Irving) and Art Direction. The Golden Globes thought the movie deserved better and granted both Best Comedy or Musical and Best Director awards. The album was nominated for a Grammy but lost out in its category to Purple Rain.

There is certainly that which is worthy of criticism: Streisand's age, her tendency for shtick, and a singing style that once in a while is forgetful of how large this movie will play, the over-the-top finale. I observe and, for the most part, I let these pass. Except that I can't help but feel, as I did then, that Barbra makes a more attractive and younger looking Anshel than she does Yentl.

The movie is based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story "Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy," a fable about a girl's dream to pursue that which was said to be prohibited by Eastern Europe Jewish law: the reading and study of Talmud (the rabbinical writings on Jewish law as expressed in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, commonly referred to as the Books of Moses.) Streisand's basic approach to the subject is respectful – prayerful and meditative. But she remains the entertainer, and melds her story with music, often in voiceover, comedy and romance.

Yentl grows up in a small village, the only child of her doting father and rabbi (Nehemiah Persoff). He does not discourage her from reading, but he tries to ground her aspirations in reality. After he dies, she cuts her hair, dresses as a boy, and leaves town to try to enroll in the Yeshiva, which reeks of prideful, brilliant and scholarly students, and every one a yang. On her way there, she, as "Anshel," meets Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin) for whom she both pines and is completely in awe of. He introduces her to Hadass, a China Doll dressed as a Jewess, and Avigdor's intended. The problem, as if the foregoing were not enough, is that, because of a technicality of religious law, her father will not let Avigdor marry her. So Avigdor entertains the idea of having Anshel marry her so that he could at least see her a couple times a week.

It is the music of Michel Legrand and the lyrics of Alan & Marilyn Bergman that are the heart and soul of Streisand's film, and if we fault her for wanting to sing all the songs herself - for the most part as interior monologues - it could not be otherwise. Related to this, if you would permit a moment of analysis, I'd like to return to a criticism I made earlier that has to do with Barbra's tendency to large gestures. In her first song, Yentl is standing, shrouded under her prayer shawl in the evening candle and gaslight of her home. She directs a question to God, but it meant also for her father and to all Men: "Where is it Written?" The urgency she brings to the word "fly" is a little unsettling. In the first of many prayer/monologues, she asks:

the reason why
a bird was given wings
if not to fly
and praise the sky
with every song it sings.

Her emphasis on "fly", though I still think too large, is not the slightest bit arbitrary. Quite the contrary. Note the rhyme scheme: why/fly/sky. It will speak repeatedly to Yentl's story, her voyage into questioning everything, especially what is permitted and not permitted, and her journey toward possibility. However, "fly" does not occur again (except once later in this song) until the last word in the final number "A Piece of Sky." Here, as she stands, queen of the world, on the deck of a ship bound for America, the land of freedom and opportunity, she directs her words specifically to her father, inviting him to "watch me fly." In the song, Yentl responds to her query from "Where is it Written?" There is no “why” this time, but no answers either - only the promise of learning, perspective and understanding. "Fly" then becomes the final word in the movie sung on a note that Streisand holds high in her register, in full voice and seemingly forever, as the camera, for the first time untethered, pulls away.

I imagine the Bergmans, Legrand, and Steisand must have been pissing all over themselves in delight, having brought this off. It's hardly the sort of textual, dramatic and narrative integrity you see every day, is it, let alone in a musical? So maybe I can cut Streisand a little slack, yes?

Leonard Norwitz

Posters

Theatrical Release: November 13th, 1983

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DVD Review: MGM (Director's Extended Edition) - Region 1 - NTSC

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Distribution

MGM

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 132 minutes
Video

1.66:1 Original Aspect Ratio

16X9 enhanced
Average Bitrate: mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

Audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround; Spanish Mono, French 2.0
Subtitles English and Spanish
Features Release Information:
Studio: MGM

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen anamorphic - 1.66:1

Edition Details:
• Theatrical & Extended Cuts
• Audio Commentary with Barbra Streisand and Co- Producer Rusty Lemorande
• Deleted Scenes (16:45)
• 2 Introduction by Barbra Streisand (1:50 & 3:02)
• Disc two:
• Director's Reel (6:55)
• The Rehearsal Process (29:32)
• 2 Deleted Songs Storyboard Sequences (3:45 + 3:40)
• Barbra's 8mm Concept Film (8:35)
• My Wonderful Cast & Crew (7:29)
• Still Galleries
• Teaser
• Theatrical Trailer

DVD Release Date: February 3, 2009
Standard DVD clamshell case with flip-page

Chapters 32

 

Comments

Image : 6
Considering the ample use of diffused light and soft focus, the image is surprisingly tight and sharp. The color palette is appropriately antique yellow. There is a considerable amount of various levels of black, largely due to the costumes and candle lighting of indoor scenes. The DVD renders this with about as much shadow detail as can expect from the medium and with far less noise than I would have anticipated. The movie may be old but it is pretty clean in this presentation, with a minimum of worrisome artifacts.

Audio & Music : 6/10
The audio is clear enough for dialogue, music and singing, but it is not always edited correctly. We notice this right from the outset when young men are discussing their readings: whether seen from a distance or up close, the level of their voices is the same and makes no allowances for their being outside in a crowded plaza. On the other hand, and much more critical, is that Streisand's voice is beautifully transformed when she is in meditative voiceover. And, speaking of voiceovers, in and around the Yeshiva, the clamor of argument creates its own music. Oy - where is uncompressed audio when we need it!

Operations : 8
Straightforward, uncomplicated menus with useful descriptions of the features selected.

Extras : 8
There are several features of variable quality and interest spread over two discs. I anticipate that all of these will be important to fans of Ms. Streisand and will yield further insights into her creative process. A few of these are worth mentioning. I am not usually big on deleted scenes, especially since they seem to have taken the place of popcorn on so many videos. Disc two presents two songs that was rejected for the movie and weren't included for the soundtrack album either. Both songs are respectable, but were rejected for dramatic and narrative reasons. They are presented in very decent audio against their animated storyboards. Don't miss "The Moon & I".

The Rehearsal Process follows the creative process for four different numbers from rehearsal to final film. The first couple of these are pretty good. In the commentary and elsewhere Ms. Streisand talks about how her directorial style (remember, this was her first such effort) was strongly molded by her experience in the theatre. This results in far less cutting than is common, which means that the camera operator needs to do what is possible to create an analogous effect by placement and movement.

 


Another bonus feature worth checking out has the rather saccharine title "My Wonderful Cast & Crew." I don't know about you but I'm a sucker for those memorial collages that are presented every year at the Oscars. MWC&C is like that. There's no voiceover, no resting on any one figure to make certain they get their air time. (Unfortunately, no titles, either - e.g. camera operator, costumes, lyricists) The piece begins with the finale of the film and segues directly into this video scrapbook with orchestral music from the movie as background. It's all very personal and nostalgic and sometimes funny.

Recommendation : 9
What took this so long to get here I can't say, nor do I know if MGM will turn right around with a Blu-ray in short order, but I can say that this video is not, contrary to the usual sentiment, worth the wait. As far as I'm concerned there was no excuse for its absence over the past dozen years. For that matter, there is really no excuse for there not being a Blu-ray edition of this movie right now. The photography is too subtle for DVD. Period. And without an uncompressed audio track, the music, which is the heart of the movie, with Barbra at the peak of her form, is only suggested. That off my chest, this DVD of Yentl is an important and well produced video, as far as it goes. Buy it anyhow, and if it comes out on Blu-ray, buy that, too, and give the DVD to a depressed friend.

 -Leonard Norwitz

 



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Distribution

MGM

Region 1 - NTSC

 





 

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