Compared to Fiddler on the Roof, Yentl is absolutely superb, as explained by Crack The World Shell‘s analyses:
…Yentl is a surprisingly charming period drama which has been somewhat overlooked with the passage of time. Combining Jewish faith with a romance story was always going to be a tough sell but viewers do not need to be Jewish to understand the heart of the story. Of course being a Streisand production, there is a level of expectation that Barbra herself will sing. Yentl does not disappoint in this area for all songs are performed by Streisand and form part of Yentl’s inner monologue. So this means Mandy Patinkin and Amy Irving (who are both accomplished singers in their own right) do not lend their vocals to the music, which may cause disappointment to some. Nevertheless, it is an effective device that works well within the constraints of the film. A minor niggle is that all the songs sound rather ‘samey’, an approach which is echoed by the lyricists, Alan and Marilyn Bergman who state they were inspired by the cyclic nature of the Torah.
Performances are well done on the whole. Streisand portrays Yentl with depth but viewers may have to suspend belief, for she does not remotely look nor sound like a man and is much more like Barbra Streisand in drag. This is further compounded when other characters in the film are supposed to believe in this disguise. But it makes compelling viewing when scenes are unintentionally subtext heavy which adds a dimension of gender fluidity with homoerotic undertones. On the other hand, Patinkin plays the passionate Avigdor with strength of masculinity and Irving is subtle in her performance as the sweet and feminine Hadass. It is interesting to note that Amy Irving (notable for winning the first ever Razzie award for worst supporting actress in Honeysuckle Rose) received both an Oscar and Razzie nomination in the Best/Worst Supporting Actress categories for her role as Hadass. She did not win either award – which perhaps signals that her performance is comfortable rather than award-winning.
While Yentl runs on for just over two hours in length, the pacing is slightly hampered by an overly drawn out introduction and could have benefited from a more lenient approach to the editing control. As it stands the main crux of the plot kicks in a bit later than expected, but when it does, it is a captivating tale. A minor qualm is that the plot feels rather hollow due to certain characters not getting enough screen time and is not as fleshed out as could be. Yet, it is an enjoyable watch. Cinematography is stunning and showcases historical locations from the former Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic). Everything is lavishly detailed; the set designs and costumes are well done and capture the time period of perfectly. Ultimately, it is a film made with great care and commitment.
With this in mind, it is not shocking to see why I’d rather watch this, than Fiddler on the Roof, as according to a comment on Out of the Ortho Box, regarding the film:
Actually, I think the movie portrays traditional Jews in general (not just the rabbi) as backward and primitive. Lovable, but not dignified. The “inevitable assimilation of some of our children” is depicted as progress (albeit sad). The progression is seemingly logical: from going against tradition to choose one’s own spouse, to marrying a nonobservant Jew, to marrying a non-Jew. But the objection in all cases is the same: tradition. It’s not clear why one break with tradition is any more problematic than another; hence the inevitability. Because the depiction of Judaism is superficial, there can’t be any powerful reason to stay Jewish.
Certainly, Yentl isn’t perfect, as it can be argued not allowing Jewish women an education is backward and primitive, but the time period depicted isn’t contemporary.
According to Roger Ebert:
To give you a notion of the special magic of “Yentl,” I’d like to start with the following complicated situation: Yentl, a young Jewish girl, wants to be a scholar. But girls are not permitted to study books. So she disguises herself as a boy, and is accepted by a community of scholars. She falls in love with one of them. He thinks she is a boy. He is in love with a local girl. The girl’s father will not let him marry her. So he convinces Yentl to marry his girlfriend, so that at least he can visit the two people he cares for most deeply. (The girlfriend, remember, thinks Yentl is a boy.) Yentl and the girl are wed. At first Yentl manages to disguise her true sex. But eventually she realizes that she must reveal the truth.
That is the central situation in “Yentl.” And when the critical moment came when Yentl had to decide what to do, I was quietly astonished to realize two things: (1) I did not have the slightest idea how this situation was going to turn out, and (2) I really cared about it. I was astonished because, quite frankly, I walked into “Yentl” expecting some kind of schmaltzy formula romance in which Yentl’s “secret identity” was sort of a running gag. You know, like one of those plot points they use for Broadway musicals where the audience is really there to hear the songs and see the costumes. But “Yentl” takes its masquerade seriously, it treats its romances with the respect due to genuine emotion, and its performances are so good that, yes, I really did care.
“Yentl” is Barbra Streisand’s dream movie. She’s been trying to make it for 10 years, ever since she bought the rights to the Isaac Bashevis Singer story it’s based on. Hollywood told her she was crazy.
Hollywood was right — on the irrefutable logical ground that a woman in her 40s can hardly be expected to be convincing as a 17-year-old boy. Streisand persisted. She worked on this movie four years, as producer, director, co-writer and star. And she has pulled it off with great style and heart. She doesn’t really look like a 17-year-old boy in this movie, that’s true. We have to sort of suspend our disbelief a little. But she does look 17, and that’s without a lot of trick lighting and funny filters on the lens, too. And she sings like an angel.
“Yentl” is a movie with a great middle. The beginning is too heavy-handed in establishing the customs against women scholars (an itinerant book salesman actually shouts, “Serious books for men … picture books for women”). And the ending, with Yentl sailing off for America, seemed like a cheat; I missed a final scene between Yentl and her “bride.”
But the middle 100 minutes of the movie are charming and moving and surprisingly interesting. A lot of the charm comes from the cheerful high energy of the actors, not only Streisand (who gives her best performance) but also Mandy Patinkin, as her long-suffering roommate, and Amy Irving, as the girl Patinkin loves and Streisand marries. There are, obviously, a lot of tricky scenes involving this triangle, but the movie handles them all with taste, tact and humor.
It’s pretty obvious what strategy Streisand and her collaborators used in approaching the scenes where Yentl pretends to be a boy. They began by asking what the scene would mean if she were a male, and then they simply played it that way, allowing the ironic emotional commentaries to make themselves.
There’s some speculation from Hollywood that “Yentl” will be “too Jewish” for middle-American audiences. I don’t think so. Like all great fables, it grows out of a particular time and place, but it takes its strength from universal sorts of feelings. At one time or another, almost everyone has wanted to do something and been told they couldn’t, and almost everyone has loved the wrong person for the right reason. That’s the emotional ground that “Yentl” covers, and it always has its heart in the right place.