Azor, Andra Fontana’s subtle, sophisticated feature debut, unsettles with an increasing sense of dread as a Swiss banker is enveloped in the Argentinian junta’s heart of darkness.
Fear and Loathing in Buenos Airesby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Yvan de Wiel, a Swiss private banker (Fabrizio Rongione) and his elegant wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau) – two faultless performances – arrive in Argentina during the terrifying times of the military junta in the 1980s, amid an atmosphere of underlying menace and dread from the outset.
On a chauffeur-driven sightseeing/orientation tour of Buenos Aires, in a public square they see two men being violently arrested, and then there’s only one. There’s no explanation from their local chauffeur: it is for them to wordlessly observe.
Yvan’s mission in Buenos Aires is to find out what happened to his predecessor, the mysterious and ubiquitous René Keys, who has disappeared without trace leaving unfinished business (a list of client names) like Harry Lime in The Third Man: a search resonating with the upriver hunt for Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Yvan also has to reassure the bank’s super-rich clients after Keys’ disappearance. They are nervous about protecting their wealth under the dictatorship, so they may need his help smuggling their cash out of the country.
He’s accepted in the highest of Argentinian social circles, unthinkingly corrupt ‘old money’ people whose polite small talk slides effortlessly between Spanish, French and English, and has its own vocabulary – “azor” means something that isn’t discussed. He and his wife are guests in a world of civilised receptions and weekend swimming pool parties at luxurious villas, yet their surroundings feel somehow insecure. The only ripple in the smooth, moneyed surface is a loud-mouthed lawyer (Juan Pablo Gereto) who represents a major racehorse-owning client who threatens to withdraw his assets from the bank.
A landowner hosts tells Yvan that his activist daughter mysteriously went missing some time ago: but this assumed political abduction is mentioned only in passing, as if there’s nothing to be done about it. Yvan has a memorable encounter with a priest who is eager to make money through risky currency speculation. But throughout he maintains a polite, diplomatic, professional front.
The feeling of uneasy dread grows throughout this memorable film: it is palpable but is never explained. Azor is an unnerving and unsettling feature debut by director Andreas Fontana, inspired by a letter of his Swiss-banker father’s, and a subtle, sophisticated, timeless warning about dictatorships.
Azor screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 29 October 2021 in the UK.