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Family Law
by Chris Knipp

Here's the best antidote for Borat, a feather-light comedy about families pervaded by good taste, good manners, and mutual understanding.

Family Law (Derecho de familia) is an Argentinean film centered on an impeccable young man with a certain reserve. He sleeps in his suit – or so his wife, Sandra (Julieta Díaz) puts it. Actually he's in his shirt and tie by then. This is Ariel Perelman, or Perelman Junior (Daniel Hendler). When his son, Gastón (Eloy Burman), has a show at his kindergarten, which is Swiss but rather off-puttingly touchy-feely and New Age for his taste, Perelman promises to do the costumes, and he does. He dresses all the children in little dark suits and ties.

This is film that establishes its world most ably, and focuses on helping us understand how that world works. To formulate the guiding point of view, there is Junior's voiceover.

Perelman is comfortable in his life, doing things his own way. (The film teaches us to be comfortable with him too.) He courts his future wife, who's a Pilates instructor in Buenos Aires, by having her instruct him. His father Bernardo, or Perelman Senior (Arturo Goetz), is a trial lawyer who keeps a professional witness on call, while Perelman Junior, who lectures on the law, has an associate "interrupt" his lectures to make points. Perelman Junior is on a state salary, while his more prepossessing father is a well known barrister. When reconstruction of the building gives Junior a couple of months off, he doesn't tell his wife; but he does spend more time with little Gastón when Sandra goes to Machu Pichu for a Pilates conference, her first time away since the birth of the little boy. (Junior's somewhat exploratory free-floating status resembles that of the main character in the Chilean Alicia Scherson's terrific movie, Play, who also is having time off work but says nothing about it.)

Junior and his wife are a typical Argentinean Jewish-Catholic couple, he says. It's not a big deal. But maybe that's the film's greatest accomplishment, again with a light touch: this comfortable installation of Jewishness in a Latin American setting.

Perelman Senior is more outgoing than his son, a man of the old school, charming, known by everybody, an individual of comfortable routines who has coffee and a croissant before he talks to anybody, and meets with clients in restaurants so they'll be more relaxed. He's on a retainer to some clients, such as an Italian restaurateur always in trouble with the Health Department. And he's a widower with a secretary of a certain age (Adriana Aizemberg) to whom he is close. Perelman Senior has a secret, and at the end we find out what it is.

Meanwhile, Perelman Senior has a birthday. Everyone seems to know about it but Perelman Junior. One of his father's cronies sees that he doesn't embarrass himself. The men grow a bit closer, but Perelman Junior doesn't understand why. For all his distance and his reserve, he's charming with little Gastón (also a charmer), and his intimate moments with Sandra feel perfectly right. Burman is wonderful at avoiding clichés and sentimentality, while talking about the sort of things that attract those defects.

Family Law is about the basic things, families, generations, lifestyles, attitudes. Director Daniel Burman is uniquely benign and his humor is of the most gentle, ironic, subtle kind.The sensibility is suavely European – western European, perhaps Mediterranean (and perhaps typically Argentinean Jewish-Catholic). It may be making gentle fun of the Argentinean preoccupation with appearances. Like good Italians – and Italian influence in the country, I hear, is not negligible – the people in Family Law avoid facendo brutta figura (looking bad) like the plague. This film is quietly life affirming. It's well made and intelligent. But it may not make a very deep impression on those used to stronger stuff.

Indeed, it's better not to talk too much about what happens in Family Law, because its little surprises are all it has. It'll lower your blood pressure, in a good way. Those who prefer to be hit over the head with blunt messages will prefer Borat and declare this a namby-pamby flop.

Family Law is Argentina's Best Foreign contender in this year's Oscar competition. (Kazakhstan doesn't have an entry.)

©2006 Chris Knipp
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