Berlinale 2021 review: Azor (Andreas Fontana)

Buenos Aires, 1980. Private banker Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) and his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau) arrive in Argentina at the height of the ruling military junta. Not that this hinders De Wiel in any way, because in the lounges of the upper echelons of Argentinian society, where in hushed conversations measured threats are delivered sotto voce, the regime’s atrocities are kept out of frame and out of sight. De Wiel has come to appease his bank’s clients after the mysterious disappearance of his partner Keys. Inés is brought along to handle the wives of the clients. As Inés puts it, she and Yvan are essentially one person: him. Moving in a milieu where speaking two languages almost seems like a must and one’s family history is a sign of class distinction, he tries to uncover what happened to his partner, a man who seems beloved by the clients but is also described as dangerous and rash. The deeper Yvan digs and the more exclusive his meetings become, the more Yvan uncovers the horror he has stepped into.

Much of Azor, Swiss helmer Andreas Fontana’s quietly unsettling debut feature, is centered around the ties between Swiss bankers, either private or credit bankers, and the military dictatorship in Argentina in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but on a broader scale it observes the way bankers operate in an almost hidden world where dictators hobnob with monseigneurs, and monseigneurs hobnob with the vieux riche. A world in which much is said by what is not said, and where conversations are measured and friendly while the consequences of those conversations are often anything but. In this system there cannot be such a thing as a conflict of conscience: the only conflict is that of interest. Morality is a liability. The through line of Azor is an examination of how far its protagonist is willing to go in putting his morality aside as he sinks deeper into the sinister morass his partner seems to have vanished in.

The way Fontana handles De Wiel’s fateful odyssey is superb. The richly colored but oftentimes dimly lit, period-appropriate cinematography by Gabriel Sandru and the excellent score by Paul Courlet suffuse Azor with an ever-increasing feeling of unease that mirrors the state of mind of its central character. In Rongione, Fontana has found a perfect lead, as the Belgian actor, a frequent collaborator of the brothers Dardenne, portrays this growing unease with the straight face his character should keep at all times. Clever sound design, lavish-yet-stylish art direction, and fine supporting performances by Cléau and a mix of Argentinian and French-language character actors are the solid backbone of the film. Rongione can be seen as a reflection of his clients, a chameleon by necessity who exists because of them, and thus these supporting roles are very important to the film.

What most stands out though is Fontana’s direction. Azor moves at a calm but steady pace through scenes that withhold the drama almost completely, apt for their setting. But Fontana uses all of the elements mentioned above to infuse the screenplay (co-written with Mariano Llinas) with a layer of mystery that holds its attraction for the audience throughout Azor‘s runtime. Whether that mystery is resolved in the film’s last enigmatic shot is up to each individual viewer. Fontana uses Azor‘s screenplay, in which essentially not a whole lot happens beyond polite conversations, to explore a universe that exists behind closed doors and the psyche of a man who is at once the center of and fully dependent on that universe, yet the Swiss director also manages to conjure up mystery and suspense out of this story through all the cinematic tools at his disposal. This makes Azor a masterful film that is intelligent, artistically sound, and audience friendly for those who don’t mind its measured pace.