Written and directed by Andreas Fontana.
Starring Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, and Carmen Iriondo.
Yvan De Wiel, a private banker from Geneva, goes to Argentina in the midst of a dictatorship to replace his partner, the object of the most worrying rumours, who disappeared overnight.
Swiss filmmaker Andreas Fontana makes an impressively controlled, confident debut with this quietly suspenseful mystery-drama set amid Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” of the late 1970s and early 1980s, where the insurgent military junta sought to suppress left-wing dissidents by any means necessary.
Swiss banker Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) heads to Buenos Aires along with his glamourous wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau) to pick up the business left unfinished by his partner René Keys, who has seemingly disappeared without a trace.
Such begins an apology tour of-sorts as Yvan touches base with his well-to-do clients, assuring them that their affairs are being taken care of and downplaying the gravity of Keys’ absence. But as Yvan becomes ever-more ingratiated with the country’s wealthy elites, while Argentina at large is a political powder keg ready to blow, he comes to learn just how dangerous his line of work truly is.
By sheer premise alone, Azor could’ve been a pulse-racing, mile-a-minute thriller, but that’s evidently not Fontana’s style. He opts instead for a slow-burn mystery from the jump, which over its compact 100 minutes immerses viewers in a compelling – if also fitfully frustrating – tangle of enigmas.
The location and fate of Keys is the principal question, one which becomes increasingly anxious over the course of the film, as so many of Keys’ clients whisper of his alleged “depraved” transgressions in hushed tones. The comparisons to both The Third Man’s Harry Lime and Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz are inevitable and surely intentional, and though this story never gets nearly as theatrical as either of those, Keys carries a wealth of the film’s dramatic weight despite being kept firmly off-screen.
This missing man mystery is wrapped within a portrait of Argentina’s political climate of the time; seeds of distrust are sewn from almost the very first scene, where Yvan’s driver witnesses the local militia searching two young men, seemingly without valid cause.
This early scene informs Azor’s generally quietly sinister tone; there’s virtually no dramatic grandstanding to speak of here, traded instead for loaded, lingering glances without a single raised voice. Yvan traipses through the upper cloisters of Argentine society, navigating the shadowy strata of commercial and private banking, while learning of other suspicious vanishings, particularly a young woman who vocally opposed the junta. Somehow it all relates to an oft-repeated name, “Lázaro.”
The picture’s title consequently refers to one of the many clandestine slivers of slang used in the banking world, “azor” serving as code for being quiet and choosing your words carefully. It’s a fitting moniker for a film so uninterested in exuberant dramatics or explicitly explaining the inner workings of the world Yvan is folded within. Yet even when it fringes on true narrative opacity, Fabrizio Rongione’s restrained performance remains the trusty glue.
Rongione does a fine job selling the ever-present fear of the scenario, yet without resorting to bug-eyed histrionics or shouting matches. As his singularly motivated wife, Stéphanie Cléau is also very good, while the supporting roster of upper-crust elites are terrifically cast. Of particular merit among the bit-parts are Juan Pablo Geretto as the shit-eating lawyer Dekerman, and Pablo Torre Nilson as the devil-eyed Monsignor Tatoski.
Presentationally, Azor boasts a stately sheen suggesting a far more experienced director, doubtless aided by DP Gabriel Sandru’s exceptional camera placement and Nicolas Desmaison’s exacting editing. Complimenting the visuals is Paul Courlet’s eccentric musical score, comprised largely of discordant synths which would typically sound more at home in an ’80s horror film – which, in one sense, Azor absolutely is.
Its sedate throughline arguably prevents it from delivering a true visceral gut-punch, but as a calling card for Fontana’s impressive tonal modulation and patient storytelling aplomb, it works far more than it doesn’t. The final chapter may feel a tad rushed, but offers up a welcome divergence from the innuendo-laden chit-chat of the first two acts, while surely leaving viewers with plenty to consider once it’s all over.
Azor is an intelligent, assured debut from Andreas Fontana, though its sober narrative translucency certainly won’t be for everyone.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.