I don’t go to the movies looking for modest intentions any more than your average baseball fan goes to the stadium hoping to see some well laid-down bunts, but Daniel Burman‘s “Family Law” is cause for exception. This story of a thirtyish law professor, Ariel Perelman, (Daniel Hendler), wriggling between two generations – his young son and his widower lawyer father, Bernardo Perelman (Arturo Goetz) – stakes out its own little swath of the urban Argentine experience (Jewish, upper middle-class professional) and surveys it with a clear-eyed empathy that shouldn’t be brushed off.
“Family Law” is an unusual film about very usual lives: unusual for its delicacy in handling dangerously poignant plot turns, its faith in its audience’s ability to dot its own i’s, and especially its sense of everyday stoicism; this kind of self-examination, not indulged into outright solipsism, is an art-house rarity. The film blows in with Hendler’s narrated description of Perelman the elder’s precise daily routine; you get straight off that life for these characters, as for most of us, is something lived in slivers, penciled into the margins between obligations, and usually conducted while exhausted (Ariel has a habit of falling asleep with his tie on).
The narration backs off after outlining father and son’s chartered schedules, as well as following Ariel’s courtship, marriage, and child with former student Sandra (Julieta Diaz); a pause of introspection only comes when his office’s temporary closure breaks the rhythm of his routine.
It’s obvious but not overstated that the Ariel feels himself ill-fitted to his father’s legacy – Bernardo’s insistently professional with his son, for whom he keeps an empty office at the ready at the family practice, but the old man’s effortlessly intimate with everyone he encounters through the workday, showing an innate professional ability to glide across along on social lubricant, a natural advocate, salesman, buddy, confidante-or is this all just our narrator’s lingering idolatry? Thin-skinned Ariel finds his own life an endless obstacle course of quotidian mortifications-forgetting his dad’s birthday (the elder Perelman remembers the birthdays and anniversaries of everyone in his building), muffing an attempt to reproduce his father’s knack for easy small talk with a cabdriver, quietly fretting over a too-good-looking member of the Pilates class his wife teaches. Along the way, he has time enough to notice the remote, still slightly awe-inspiring figure of his father has started to wane.
“Family Law” is the capstone of Burman’s “fatherhood trilogy,” which includes his 2004 Berlin Silver Bear-winning “Lost Embrace“; the movie is lightly flecked with autobiography (Burman comes from a family of lawyers and once practiced alongside his father; as Maurice Pialat did, he casts his son for his protagonist’s child) and a crisply melancholy understated professionalism. There’s no “This is growing up” epiphany here, just a refreshing sense of the passage of time.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.