Picks and Pans Review: Yentl

updated 12/05/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/05/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Barbra Streisand's Yentl is the kind of movie they aren't supposed to be making anymore—sweet, simple and emotionally satisfying. Derived from an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, Yentl tells the tale of a young Jewish woman living in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century who must disguise herself as a man in order to study the Talmud. Streisand's the first to know a plot like that doesn't exactly jump off the page and shout box office. She's spent 15 years trying to get it on the screen. Now she has become the first woman in movie history to produce, direct, write and star in a film. While Hollywood wags have dubbed the $14.5 million project Tootsie on the Roof, the analogy ignores Streisand's heartfelt personal vision—she dedicates Yentl to her teacher father, Emanuel, who died when she was only 15 months old. In the film Yentl's scholar father, who is played beautifully by Nehemiah Persoff, must teach his daughter the sacred books in secret. When he dies, Yentl is forced to continue her quest for knowledge alone. The parallel between Yentl and Streisand, two women without fathers striving for acceptance in a man's world, is at the film's core. Streisand makes that parallel both touching and telling. This is no A Star Is Born vanity production; Streisand leans heavily on the members of her crew and her co-stars, and they deliver. Cameraman David (Chariots of Fire) Watkin succeeds in giving the film a burnished beauty. And the acting is first-rate. Mandy Patinkin, most recently in Daniel, contributes a star-making performance as the student Yentl loves. But he, in love with pretty Amy Irving, sees Yentl as a man. Director Streisand handles this triangle with humor and surprising restraint. In a Shakespearean twist Streisand and Irving marry, and the subsequent love scene between the two is moving and tasteful to boot. Streisand's generosity as a writer and director enhances her own performance—along with Funny Girl and The Way We Were, this is her best acting. And her voice, flowing like eiderdown over the score by Michel Legrand and Marilyn and Alan Bergman, has never sounded lovelier. The 13 songs, sung by Streisand as interior monologues, sometimes slow down the action, and her climactic number rings too much of Funny Girl and Broadway brass. These are minor faults. Streisand gives Yentl a heart that sings and a spirit that soars. (PG)

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