Burman's self-deprecating Jewish humor has also invited inevitable comparisons to Woody Allen. "It's not a measurable comparison," said Burman during a recent trip to L.A. for the AFI Fest screenings of his wonderful film, Family Law. "But I'm very happy with it. I admire him more than anyone else in the world."
Burman's modesty becomes him, but the analogy goes only 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. That worn-out term "dysfunction" would likely 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 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 last 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. "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." And which one is Burman? The answer is delivered as another dialectic. "I'm the opposite of my father," he says. "Until now."
Late in Family Law, a tragedy catches the son, 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 register Perelman's grief only as he registers it himself: while eating breakfast, caring for his toddler (played by Burman's son, Gaston), 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.
Burman is happily married, and the male-female relationships in his movies are confused but loving, though his women are almost invariably listeners and helpmeets, for which Burman often catches flak. "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's next movie will be about the empty nest, which seems a touch premature for the father of two children, ages four and three. "I see the joy in my kids, and they enjoy me," he says. "I'm angry at the idea that they are going to abandon me someday." Maybe the comparison to Woody Allen, king of worriers, isn't so off-base.