There has been a renaissance in Argentinean cinema over the past 10 years and Daniel Burman is at its forefront. The young director's latest film, Family Law (Derecho de Familia), is a gentle look at the relationship between a Jewish Buenos Aires father and son, both lawyers, who have a hard time communicating with each other. Low-key and charming throughout, Family Law is the kind of thoughtful comic drama aimed at intelligent audiences that Hollywood filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to make. The wonderful performances and witty script make for a movie that is very much in the spirit of Francois Truffaut, a director Burman clearly admires.
The film is set around the time Ariel Perelman (Daniel Hendler) meets and marries his first serious girlfriend, Sandra (Julieta Diaz) and becomes a father. Ariel, an insecure law professor, has long felt he doesn't quite measure up to his widowed father, Bernardo (Arturo Getz), a gregarious, well-liked defense lawyer. Under pressure to join his father in the family firm, Ariel ignores him to woo Sandra, a Pilates instructor he gets to know by taking her classes, although he actually hates to exercise. When his son is born, Ariel has no sense of how to act. He tries to get guidance from his own father, but Bernardo doesn't really have a clue himself.
The film is honest about how difficult some men find it to relax with their own children, but with none of the kitschy, pat resolutions that so often mar attempts to deal with this subject. The film is a serious look at two men who love each other and want to be close and don't quite know how, but the laughs are real and are an integral part of the film. The film's funniest moments come when Ariel is stiff and formal around the fathers of other children in his son's preschool, who outdo each other with their warmth and childcare skills.
Daniel Hendler is a charming, low-key actor who gives the impression that he is completely unaware of how handsome he is. He has starred in two of Burman's previous films, Lost Embrace (for which he won the best actor award at the Berlin Film Festival) and Waiting for the Messiah, in which he also played characters named Ariel. Burman is using him, it seems, as an alter-ego in the same way Francois Truffaut cast Jean-Pierre Leaud as his autobiographical hero Antoine Doinel in five films.
This arrangement works well for Burman and Hendler, just as it did for Truffaut and Leaud. Hendler is utterly relaxed on screen and doesn't seem to be acting at all. But he is: He manages exactly the right tone in both the comic moments (watch for his uncomfortable, slightly disgusted expression in the scene where he has to hold hands with fathers of his son's preschool classmates in a pool) and the serious ones.
Arturo Goetz also gives an excellent performance as the elusive father who does his best but leaves his son feeling adrift. Adriana Aizemberg, who played the Hendler character's mother in Lost Embrace, is touching here as the elder Perelman's devoted secretary.
It may be a coincidence, but Julieta Diaz bears a resemblance to the reserved, calm actress Claude Jade, who played Antoine Doinel's girlfriend and wife in the Truffaut films Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board. And to clear up any doubts that this film is, to some degree, autobiographical, Burman casts his own toddler son, Eloy, as Ariel Perelman's child.
Although this is a very enjoyable film, Burman occasionally strains to be whimsical and falls flat. And although Ariel is meant to be insecure and fearful, he is extremely self-assured in front of his law school classes, which doesn't quite make sense.
But these are minor lapses on the part of an extremely self-assured, intelligent director whose films paint a vivid, affectionate portraits of the Buenos Aires Jewish community he knows so well.