Made when he was a stripling of 24, Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman’s first feature, A Chrysanthemum Burst in Cincoesquinas, was a violent story of love and revenge. He must have gotten that out of his system: Though Burman’s subsequent movies also traffic in what he calls “the great transitions of life” — identity, marriage, parenthood and death, not necessarily in that order — they embrace an ambivalent but warm view of domesticity that has made Burman, now 33, a film-festival favorite. Burman’s self-deprecating Jewish humor has invited inevitable comparisons with Woody Allen. “It’s not a measurable comparison,” says Burman during a recent trip to L.A. for the AFI Fest screenings of his wonderful new film, Family Law. “But I’m very happy with it. I admire him more than anyone else in the world. I hope he comes to one of my movies, but — please don’t play the clarinet.”
Burman’s modesty becomes him, but the analogy only goes so far. Certainly, his work bears some resemblance to early Woody Allen, before Allen’s work took a turn for the rancid, lewd and bitter. Burman’s three most recent films feature neurotic Jewish men (all played with minimalist delicacy by the seraphic young Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler) suffering crises both oedipal and existential. But where Allen’s movies are fueled by an unprocessed hostility and, at their lowest ebb, contempt for his Jewishness and his family, Burman’s tone is wry, loving and tender even when, as often happens, things fall apart. I suspect that worn-out term “dysfunction” would make him shudder. Waiting for the Messiah (2000), about a young man caught between love of his family and the need to separate, and Lost Embrace (2004), in which a similar young man struggles to sort out his relationship with an absent father, are both set in Burman’s beloved Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires, where he grew up and about which he made a documentary, Seven Days in Once.
Family Law extends Burman’s meditation on the tug between belonging and self-definition that challenges even the most loving father-son relationships. In this case, the son is a university lecturer and new parent accustomed to keeping the world at bay through abstraction, hypothesis and compulsive routine, while his father is a public defender deeply engaged with his mostly poor clients. Burman’s own father was a lawyer, and he himself went to law school. But though there are bits of Burman’s life in all his work (Family Law grew out of his experience of becoming a father twice in the past four years), the autobiography in his movies is always internal, which is to say an expression of his responses to the changes in his life.
Listening to Burman — a fast, funny and hyperarticulate talker even when mediated by an interpreter — deconstruct his movies is almost as much fun as watching them. He uses the word “dialectic” a lot, not in the Marxist sense but to describe the friction between thought, feeling, word and deed when his characters are hit by life’s big changes. In Family Law, the inner life of the blank-faced young man, Perelman Jr. (“He’s not my alter ego,” says Burman deadpan, “because he has his ego and I have my ego”), peels back in onion layers of contradictory testimony. His authoritative voice-over is amusingly subverted at every turn by what he says, thinks or does, and out of that comes a quietly seismic shift in perception. Perelman Jr. is at pains to emphasize his difference from his father, but what we see on the screen (they eat a sandwich the same way, curl their fingers in the same tentative wave and run downstairs in identical skips) tells us otherwise, which is the source of both the movie’s teasing, sweet-tempered comedy and its philosophical reflection. “There’s a moment in life when one decides whether one’s going to turn into one’s father or the opposite,” says Burman. “It’s difficult to be in the middle.” I ask which one he is, and he lobs me another dialectic. “I’m the opposite of my father,” he says. “Until now.”
Late in Family Law, a tragedy catches Perelman Jr. by surprise, but the trauma is handled so matter of factly, and so thoroughly integrated into the fabric of his life, that we only register Perelman’s grief as he registers it himself — while eating breakfast, caring for his toddler (played by Burman’s son, Eloy) and trying vainly to avoid full participation in the inescapable materiality of family life. Burman’s movies are so richly steeped in the warp and woof of domesticity, they might have been made by a woman, but their point of view is ineluctably male. “In the last few years,” he points out, “the only movies that talk about men’s feelings are gay movies.”
Burman is happily married, and speaks of his own Jewish mother with wry self-amusement (“It’s been 20 days since I talked to her, so we can’t be that close”). The male-female relationships in his movies are confused but loving, though his women are almost invariably listeners and helpmeets, for which he often catches flack. “The other day at a screening in Boston a woman asked me angrily, ‘What’s wrong with the women in this movie?’ Nobody asks Jane Campion what’s wrong with the men in her movies,” he says with some exasperation. “There’s nothing wrong with them. I just don’t care what happens to them, they’re fine. The women have some worth, but they don’t have a discursive presence. Men have to talk a lot to say a few things.”
Burman makes no grandiose claims for the power of cinema to explain ourselves to ourselves. “It’s a lot less important than we think it is,” he says. “Many civilizations live perfectly well without cinema, and oral tradition is essential.” But he’s a passionate defender of the power of small-scale movies to illuminate the great themes of life. “Not just the bombing of Iraq,” he says. “There are other things that don’t come out of the newspapers but are sources of anguish just the same.” And, thank heaven, of fun. His next movie will be about the empty nest, which seems a touch premature for the father of two children aged 4 and 3. “I see the joy in my kids, and they enjoy me. I’m angry at the idea that they are going to abandon me someday.” Like Woody Allen, Burman is a Jewish worrier who covers all present and future bases. He’s the most indispensable worrier we have.