Commentary: Streisand's passion project shows how far we've come -- and how far we have to go

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With the stubborn recession, ongoing foreclosures and now swine flu, there is still good news, some of it specifically related to women. The U.K. recently named its first female poet laureate in Carol Duffy, a dozen women's colleges nationwide have received anonymous gifts totaling $82 million, President Obama might very well appoint another woman to the Supreme Court -- and "Yentl" finally has come out on DVD.

One movie might not seem like much, but this one can make you think about a lot of things, good and bad.

For starters, the force behind this picture was female, Jewish and an actress. If these drawbacks weren't enough, she wanted to make a period piece set in Eastern Europe, do it as a musical and direct it herself. It took her five years and then some to convince someone with purse strings (United Artists in the end). I'm thinking that today, in our tentpole-tethered world, it probably wouldn't get made at all, but 25 years ago, with a lot of cajoling and cojones, it did for Barbra Streisand.

Watching "Yentl" again in this deluxe edition is one of those mixed pleasures because it drives home the point that much has changed, and much else hasn't.

I put it on the other night as an antidote to everything I was watching on the news, which never seems to get any less noisy or noisome. Friday nights are particularly hard to bear, especially on the carping cable channels, as I suspect everyone wants to get their ideological licks in before the weekend. It seemed the perfect moment to be transported back in time 100 years.

Plus, "Yentl" is more than a musical: It was honored recently in Hollywood as one of the movies that helped change the world.

Such claims are hard to prove, but it can be argued that Streisand's pic is a key moment in a continuum that stretches to the early days of such female directors as Ida Lupino and Dorothy Arzner and that her achievement made it easier for women to be taken seriously as producers, directors and screenwriters. (The singer-actress produced, directed, co-wrote the screenplay and starred in "Yentl.")

As for its subject matter, based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, it would be overstating to suggest that a movie about a young woman who had to disguise herself as a man to, of all things, dedicate herself to book-learning, was groundbreaking in 1984; the feminist revolution had been in full force a dozen years by then. Still, the movie did dramatize the issue of women's roles in society entertainingly, even movingly. The through-line in the movie that "nothing is impossible" has to be credited for conveying that invigorating message to an up-and-coming generation.

The music, especially the leitmotiv lyric "Where Is It Written?" by the incomparable Alan and Marilyn Bergman, played a major role not only in moving the action along but also in universalizing Yentl's yearnings and making them feel timeless.

Beyond the music, one of the movie's pleasures is watching how disguise calls into question the sexual identities and proper roles of the main characters -- those of Mandy Patinkin and Amy Irving as well as Streisand's Yentl. There also are surprising interactions and shifts in aspiration by characters throughout the movie.

I'm making it sound more ponderous than it feels in viewing it, though. To use an analogy from Shakespeare, who also deftly played with disguises, it's more "As You Like It" than "Cymbeline."

Also as in Shakespeare, visual imagery plays a key role in plot development: Each time Yentl crosses a body of water, from a raft over a tiny stream and the ride over a beautiful bridge into the big city to her final ocean voyage, we intuit another step in the heroine's road to self-discovery. Whatever else, her life will not be, as she puts it, about darning socks for some man.

So, how far have we come since Yentl cut her hair, donned those wire-rims and sang her way into our hearts?

Quite a ways in the U.S., though, as Marilyn Bergman suggested in introducing the director's cut of the movie last month during the "Kat Kramer's Films That Changed the World" event in Los Angeles, we have of late "slipped back" in terms of women's inroads in showbiz. (Kat is the daughter of Stanley Kramer.)

In the country as a whole, equal educational opportunities are much more widely available: There are more female law students than male, an almost proportionate enrollment in medical schools and at least noticeable growth in the engineering ranks.

But a few parts of the developing world are more backward than they were in Eastern Europe 100 years ago, when Yentl had to draw the curtains to read the Talmud.

A sect we thought had been eradicated in the wake of 9/11 has reasserted itself in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and one of the major goals of the Taliban is to keep women as far away from books as possible.

The bravery of those young women we read about on or see on video snippets who dare to traipse to mud-hut schools amid threats, lashings and worse share the spunk of a thousand Yentls. Just because the Taliban is old news for us shouldn't mean we shrug off its injustices.

And there's worse: The recent Los Angeles event also highlighted the horrors unfolding in the Congo, where the rape of women by warring factions is not only random lawlessness but also effectively institutionalized to subjugate entire swathes of territory.

Where is it written that we should sit back and not protest this? I'm sure Yentl would.
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