Swiss-Argentine director Andreas Fontana’s feature debut, Azor, is one of those films that seems to come out of left field; a cool, restrained, formally daring work that could easily get lost in the onslaught of upcoming high-profile commercial films and fall film festivals. Especially when its U.S. distributor, MUBI, has opted to release it directly to physical and virtual theaters (with some exceptions) as it makes the rounds through the European film festival circuit after its premiere in Berlin early this year.
Set in Argentina in 1980, four years after General Jorge Rafael Videla and his troops overthrew the government of Isabel Martínez de Perón, Azor, much like Benjamín Naishtat’s extraordinary thriller Rojo (2018), explores the complicity of Argentina’s upper and middle classes in the crimes perpetrated by Videla’s regime. While Naishtat fully embraced and even defied genre conventions in his film, Fontana strips them down to their barest essentials, almost dispensing with them entirely. The plot may involve the mysterious disappearance of a Swiss private banker but that is just a pretext; Fontana is far more interested in capturing and dissecting a milieu, in what is said and left unsaid in conversations and what can be read between the lines.
Private Swiss banker Yvan De Wiel (Belgian actor Fabrizio Rangione, speaking a flawless, somewhat accented Spanish that further underlines his character’s status as an outsider) and his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau) have arrived in Buenos Aires to find out what happened to his firm’s partner Keys and to reassure his clients everything’s okay and that he will be handling their financial affairs moving forward. As they are driven to the hotel, they are welcomed by the sight of two young men being searched by the military police: the one and only reference to the regime’s actions. “You have to understand. The situation was awful here. The country needs major reforms,” the hotel manager tells Yvan in French in response to the latter’s oblique reference to the government’s actions—a great example of reading between the lines since their initial chitchat revolved around the 1978 World Cup held in Argentina.
The film’s five chapters track Yvan’s and Inés’ journey through a small, privileged and almost paranoid circuit, full of apparently charming old aristocrats, landowners, gamblers, corrupt lawyers and equally corrupt priests. A world where people keep looking over their shoulders not knowing where the next blow will come from, even though they support the regime. Yvan navigates this world with Inés’ help, Lady Macbeth to his bloodless, numbers- and deal-driven Macbeth. She observes and takes mental notes as she chats up the wives and takes a lap in their swimming pools. And she knows when to push the right buttons the moment her husband proves indecisive.
Keys is described to them as “distracted,” “untrustworthy,” “brilliant,” “depraved,” and a “despicable manipulator.” Even so, Fontana and co-scriptwriter Mariano Llinás (director of the critically acclaimed 13-hour-long six-episode film La flor) merely hint at the reasons for his disappearance. Keys is the ghost that haunts Yvan, taunting him, challenging him, until no more mention is made of him in the film, a mystery that remains unresolved. Keys’ clients include Augusto Padel Camón (Juan Trench) and his wife Margarita (Elli Medeiros) who still mourn the disappearance of their politically active daughter; Farrell (Ignacio Vila), an arrogant businessman and horse owner who enjoys bullying his business associates, even his lawyer; and one of the film’s most unnerving characters, Monsignor Tatoski (a pitch perfect Pablo Torre Nilsson, son of legendary filmmaker Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, one of the founders of the Argentine cinema’s first new wave in the ’50s, and himself a director) who claims that “parasites must be eradicated even in the best of families” as he asks Yvan to invest on his behalf in the world’s most unstable and riskiest currencies. Yvan also has to contend with a competitor in the form of a Credit Suisse banker, who is circling these very same private clubs and banquets and galas, striking deals with the powers that be, his presence a sign that times are changing for the banking industry as it begins to move from the more personalized services offered by Yvan’s banking firm to a more stockholder-friendly globalized form of banking.
More than halfway through the film we learn that the word azor, according to Inés, means to “be quiet,” “be careful with what you say”—although no sign of that word appears in Cassell’s French Dictionary or for that matter anywhere in Google (there is a town in Israel called Azor though). Be that as it may, the definition perfectly describes the milieu and how Yvan relates to it as he tries to fix whatever mess his colleague left behind. Yvan always finds the right thing to say; his face may at times give him away but he soon recovers his composure. And like his wife, he knows how to listen and how to calibrate his reactions. He may at first be unsure of his own abilities and if he will be able to honor his bank’s reputation (after all, he is a direct descendant of one of the founders). But once his wife gives him a little nudge, he can be as cunning as any corporate banker. Fabrizio Rongione’s superb, understated performance beautifully captures Yvan’s moral quandary and his transformation into a completely amoral being willing to make a deal with the devil himself even if it means visiting the devil at his lair deep in the Río La Plata.
Argentine cinema has long tackled the tragic, violent legacy of the so-called “Dirty War” but it’s always done so from the perspective of its victims: the families of the disappeared and the disappeared themselves. Fiction films like Naishtat’s Rojo and even Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes, which look at those who shrugged their shoulders at the violence and even became complicit in the government’s actions, provide much needed perspective. Azor is much more than a worthy addition to this trend. With its almost minimalist, shot/countershot visual style—still frames and painterly tableaus that heighten the absence of loved ones included—Fontana shows the moral price we all pay when governments come after others as we quietly watch from the sidelines… until the day they come for us.
Azor is currently playing in New York’s IFC Center and opens on Friday, September 17, in Los Angeles at the The Royal and in Pasadena’s Playhouse, with a nationwide theatrical rollout to follow, including the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on September 24. For a full list of theaters and upcoming dates visit https://mubi.com/azor.