The story of a Swiss banker traveling Argentina during the junta, “Azor” takes place in the cloistered world of private banking. A world one is often born into, with special codes of conduct and dialect, private bankers prefer to operate out of public view – that’s why the banks endure and build fortunes over centuries while their criminal clients may rise and fall. Azor itself is a code word meaning “to not say too much” or “to keep one’s cards close,” a trait that the film and its protagonist so excel at, viewers will be kept guessing until the last moment.
Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) is a third-generation Swiss banker traveling to Argentina for the first time after the disappearance of his partner, Rene Keys. De Wiel’s job is delicate – he must reassure clients of the stability of his bank, despite his vanished partner and rival, while also trying to find what happened to Keys without suffering the same fate. The film is essentially a succession of social visits, which strain to uphold a veneer of normalcy even as a cloud of fear hangs over the entire country. Along with his urbane wife Ines, (Stephanie Cléau), who furnishes him with social strategies and helps him to dress well (but not so well as to outshine the clients), de Wiel follows Keys’ path to the heart of the Argentinean regime and the mysterious ‘Lazaro.’
While overt colonialism has mostly subsided today, director Andreas Fontana (who is Swiss himself and has also lived in Argentina) clearly sees the bankers as part of a colonial project that continues to this day; at one point de Wiel (who lives in a castle in Europe) likens himself to Cortez the conquistador. “Azor” is an indictment of the Swiss banks that profited from criminal regimes and are still in business, but also of the many smaller compromises the wealthy make with power. It may be a period piece, but similar stories are playing out around the world today.
“Azor” is a film of impeccably polished facades capable of concealing horrors. Argentina’s greatest wealth at the time was linked to the political violence of the dirty war and by calling attention to that, “Azor” makes a thriller out of social calls. Even as the majority of the conversation is just chatting, circling around the real issues, it feels terribly urgent as the characters are constantly probing each other, calculating, deciding how much they can afford to disclose. This is Fontana’s feature debut, and he shows an excellent facility for adding textures to enliven dialogue scenes with shots lingering on evocative bits of décor, an affectively disorienting soundtrack, and quick glimpses of the disappeared all deployed to control the mood.
Throughout it all, de Wiel is impassive, his feelings toward what he sees unknown, a perfect screen for his clients and the film’s audience to project their desires onto. There are hints of “Heart of Darkness” that become explicit at the end, as de Wiel heads up the river to meet his fate, but Fontana cannily modifies that famous finale, with an ending surprising in its simplicity, that will let audiences decide for themselves where the horror lies. [A]