Daniel Burman on the set of Family Law

“It’s uncomfortable to see people out of their context,” Ariel Perelman (Daniel Hendler) says in the opening scene of Family Law, a new film by Daniel Burman. The Argentine director has made something of a career of training his eye on such discomfort. Like the first two installments of his fatherhood trilogy, Family Law is a loosely autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a young, Jewish Argentine man whose complicated relationship with his father causes him to grapple with his sense of self.

In Burman’s last film, Lost Embrace, a college dropout and lingerie salesman from Once—Buenos Aires’ historically Jewish neighborhood—harbors fantasies about his father, who abandoned his family to fight in the Yom Kippur war. This time, Burman’s alter-ego has found a steady job as a law professor, married a non-Jewish Pilates instructor, and entered into fatherhood himself. On the surface it appears that Perelman—Burman’s most stable incarnation, emotionally and financially—has escaped many of his predecessor’s insecurities. But when the young professor arrives at his office one day, he discovers the government building in which he works is literally collapsing under the weight of its files. The building requires a structural overhaul, and its occupants are barred from entering it during the renovation.

Ariel (Daniel Hendler) with father
(Arturo Goetz)

Suddenly short of work, Perelman is thrown out of context. Never telling his wife about his new-found freedom, he wanders around Buenos Aires and meets up with his father. A charismatic lawyer whose practice is a bit shadier than his son’s, the father is a familiar Eastern European, diaspora type with a penchant for mussels and Zionist postcards. Whether it’s the elevator man in the court building or his longtime client, a restaurant owner repeatedly getting shut down for health violations, there isn’t a person with whom the elder Perelman can’t converse—”a Zelig among lawyers,” his son calls him. And while the younger Perelman doesn’t quite know what to make of his father’s numerous charms, he leans on him for help. The father still holds out hope that his son will one day take over his practice. More than one person comments on the similarities between the two men—to the pleasure of Perelman Sr. and the discomfort of Perelman Jr.—and the son finds himself, despite his ambivalence, peeking into the office once set aside for him.

Because of his tepid relationship with his father, Perelman is unsure of how to be a parent himself. Taking his son to preschool, he uneasily eyes the large Swiss cross adorning his son’s school sweater and later questions why his Jewish son is attending such a school. “Do you know what they did during Second World War?” he asks his wife, but then drops the subject. He’s even uneasy about his own identity: “We’re just a typical Argentine Judeo-Christian married couple,” he jokes.

Burman has often been compared to Woody Allen, a comparison he himself encourages. Like Allen’s overeducated, urban alter-egos, Burman’s creations are compulsively, often humorously self-aware. But Burman’s films are much more historically aware, closer to the work of Truffaut, particularly the series The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, which places Truffaut’s protagonist against the backdrop of political crises in France. (Indeed, Burman and his filmmaking peers—Martín Rejtman, Fabian Bielinsky, and Lucrecia Martel—have been called Argentina’s New Wave.)

Each one of Burman’s small, character-driven films mirrors a much larger narrative—that of a struggling Argentina. His first film, Waiting for the Messiah, takes place during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and the resulting economic maelstrom that struck Argentina sets his characters in motion. The closing of the family restaurant forces Burman’s protagonist, Ariel Goldstein, to leave Once and find another job, where he meets a woman and rebels against his family’s expectations. Lost Embrace picks up Argentina’s story several years later—after the devaluation of the peso and the economy’s collapse—by documenting the petty commerce of a mall and its favorite bra salesman; Family Law follows a more mature protagonist in a new era when the debris of Argentina’s economic wreck is finally being cleared away.

As his characters and his country reach steadier ground, Burman, as a filmmaker, is also maturing. In his previous films, his handheld cinematography could sometimes be jerky and distracting, and some of the scenes overly emotional. But Family Law is unsentimental—sometimes ruefully self-deprecating—and captures ambivalence through understatement. The film does not end with father and son embracing, as did the previous installment, but with a son recognizing the fragility of life, and realizing that he can be a different kind of parent than his own.