‘Family Law,” Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman’s latest offering, is a movie about lawyers, so almost by necessity the issue of secrets and lies predominates. Only here, the prevarications are of a domestic sort: Ariel Perelmen, a young professor of law, son of Bernardo Perelman, a Buenos Aires criminal attorney, keeps secrets from his wife, Sandra.
He does not tell her, for example, that the brilliant legal gambit with which he won her heart was actually his father’s stroke of genius. But he torments himself about it, mildly, alone at night. “Sometimes I wonder if this lie couldn’t be grounds for the annulment of marriage,” he asks himself late at night, in the uber-egolike voiceover that narrates the entire film.
He also fails to tell her that the court’s building has been foreclosed for a month and that, dressed in his suit, he has taken to wandering the streets of Buenos Aires. “Have you told your wife you’re unemployed?” Perelman senior asks Perelman junior.
Perelmen junior, played by Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler, by now a mainstay in Burman movies, is a decent sort. He presents as dark haired, a bit brooding and only semicomfortable in his own skin. He is prone to introverted philosophizing. He is a geek who works hard as a legal aid attorney, and who is a dedicated teacher and a solid, grateful husband: As he ambles through his month off, he seems thoroughly uninterested in cheating on Sandra (“It was a miracle to marry Sandra,” he intones, in certain awe of himself). So the question arises, why lie?
“It’s the dynamic of the marriage,” said Burman, for whom “Family Law,” Argentina’s entry for best foreign film, will be a second stab at an Oscar. (His first was 2004’s “The Lost Embrace,” which won two Silver Bears at the Berlin Film Festival.) “He yearns for a kind of freedom, and he needs to keep his pointless secrets. If she knew, it wouldn’t matter, but from a masculine point of view, these small, irrelevant lies give you a sense of liberty.”
“Family Law,” a wry but finally appreciative meditation on family life, argues that speaking, explaining, analyzing — in short, explicitness, the very bread and butter of so many talky family movies — may be seriously overrated.
For instance, the fact that the pretty and practical Sandra, a Pilates teacher, is not Jewish, is a nonissue that does not merit a brief reference in the film. “This simply accords with the way I live my own Judaism,” Burman said. “I am absolutely Jewish, but the conflicts of my daily life have nothing to do with being a Jew. Not everything connects in that way. Part of the family is Jewish, another part is not, and it is possible that that not be a conflict. You can live through the situation of a Jewish boy marrying a non-Jewish girl and have conflicts in life, but they have nothing to do with that. ”
Burman, 33, is married to a non-Jewish architect with whom he has two children. The oldest, Eloy, winningly plays Sandra and Ariel’s son, Gaston Perleman. Eloy calls his dad “Burman.” In the movie, Gaston, the son, calls his dad “Perelman.”
But it is not just Sandra’s non-Jewishness that fleets unmentioned through the movie. As we follow the family through courtship, marriage, a son, a birthday party and a funeral, Perelman’s Judaism is similarly implicit yet unspoken.
Among other things, Burman faithfully portrays much of Buenos Aires’s assimilated Jewish professional class, now possibly losing its Jewish identity (but not its surnames). Or, as he might prefer, he portrays an urbane, well-balanced expression of Jewishness that does not flagellate itself over the blessing of a single, lovely shiksa.
And anyway, this is a movie about fathers and sons, and about the jurisprudential profession. In a long opening meditation, Perelman junior points out that his father chose law, but he has chosen justice. As he gingerly opens the door to what should have been, had he followed his dad’s footsteps, his office at the law firm, the camera’s eye falls on his real future — that is, right now — where Perelman junior expertly leads a class.
And it is, of course, about being a Jew in Argentina, for him, “one of the best places on earth to be a Jew.”
When this year’s Oscar selection was announced, Burman faced a barrage of queries concerning Argentine antisemitism from the foreign media. This emanates, he said, “from prejudice and ignorance.”
”Look, I am a very publicly Jewish director, and in two cases I have represented my county at the Oscars. That tells you something about a country, doesn’t it? I don’t for example, imagine this necessarily happening in Austria…..”
Noga Tarnopolsky is a cultural correspondent living in Israel.