In Andreas Fontana’s Azor, a sinister look at the culture of silence that lets evil thrive

  • Azor, currently streaming on MUBI, follows a Swiss banker investigating his partner’s disappearance in Argentina during the Dirty War.
Azor is directed by Andreas Fontana. PREMIUM
Azor is directed by Andreas Fontana.
Updated on Dec 05, 2021 08:45 AM IST
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By Devarsi Ghosh

A spectral silence suffocates Swiss director Andreas Fontana’s spectacular feature film debut, Azor, which has been streaming on MUBI since December 3.

The setting is Argentina in the years between 1976 and 1983, when the country was under a military dictatorship that killed or made “disappeared” tens and thousands of people it considered to be dissidents, including students, journalists, activists, trade-unionists, Leftists and suspected left-wing radicals. The military junta called this genocide the Dirty War.

Fontana’s film, however, does not unfold in the bloody streets. Written by Fontana and Mariano Llinás, Azor is concerned with Argentina’s moneyed elite at the time. What were they up to when the military government had unleashed a “purification phase”, as one character puts it, to remove “parasites”? And how did such crimes not face opposition and were tolerated by civil society’s most powerful members?

Silence – and thus, complicity – is the answer. The title, Azor, means “be quiet” in banking circles of Geneva. Like “omerta”, which refers to a code of silence practiced among Italian crime families, Azor is a key tenet for the film’s Swiss private banker protagonist Yvan (Fabrizio Rongione). The clientele for Yvan’s boutique bank, co-owned by his partner René Keys, is the global rich, the top 1% of the world. Yvan’s job is to shift their clients’ money out to Switzerland, and guide them to the right investments. Corrupt politicians, crony capitalists, perhaps even dictators and warlords are grateful for his services.

Naturally, staying silent even in the face of the most despicable evil is fundamental to Yvan’s profession.

Did René Keys stay silent, though? Azor begins with Yvan visiting Argentina, after Keys goes missing. Yvan is here to comfort their clients, who considered Keys very close, and ensure they stay with the bank. Accompanying him is his charming wife Inés (Stephanie Cléau), whose beauty and studied grace is useful to Yvan during meetings with clients.

These meetings in Azor are pregnant with ominous disquiet, as everyone is extra-careful about choosing the right words while speaking, lest they spill something that provokes the junta to seize their assets or make them “disappear”. Like the Hindi web series Paatal Lok, Azor is a thriller, the real purpose of which, is to lay bare the nation's truth. The disappearance of Keys offers key to understanding not just the Argentine upper class during one of the country’s darkest periods, but also the circumstances that let evil thrive and grow in any part of the world at any point of time.

Azor also offers a ringside view to private banking. The private banker has to earn the trust of their rich and anxious client till they part with their money. According to every client Yvan meets, Keys happened to be a master at it. While some clients considered him a reliable and resourceful friend, others found him debauched and risky. But everyone agrees that he was a brilliant, unforgettable character.

Yvan, on the other hand, is cautious and more conservative. He is not keen on making grandiose promises or jumping into risky investments, which makes him unattractive to some of Keys’ clients. Perhaps, it is Yvan’s self-effacing disposition that successfully leads him to Lazaro, Keys’ secret client. Without spoiling the movie for readers, I will just say that Lazaro is something that is a natural consequence of any genocide. Did Keys get spooked and escape? Or was Lazaro his idea in the first place?

Pablo Torre Nilson gives a menacing performance as Tatoski.
Pablo Torre Nilson gives a menacing performance as Tatoski.

These answers are not as important as what Azor tells us about what happens to a country and its people when they are held hostage by fear. Azor takes place in enclosed, luxurious spaces of the rich and the powerful, cut off from the menacing bloodbath outside. The people whom Azor meets are afraid and uneasy about the political climate, not necessarily because they dislike the government. They are just worried about their money. Despite the opulence of expensive clothes, props, and property on display, the characters’ moral emptiness and never-ending fear muddies the film’s frames; the cinematography is by Gabriel Sandru. Paul Courlet’s electronic score sneakily pops up during tense scenes to intensify the vice-like grip of exchanges between Yvan and the clients, particularly a sinister one involving a devilish monsignor, played by Pablo Torre Nilson.

Thematic similarities to Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, and its 1979 film adaptation Apocalypse Now, have already been acknowledged by the director and noted elsewhere. Heart of Darkness uncovers the brutality of the Belgian colonisation of the Congo in the early 20th century through the eyes of Marlow, who seeks out the mysterious ivory trader Kurtz, not unlike Yvan’s search for Keys.

Azor also reminded me of Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s 2008 animated docu-fiction film Waltz with Bashir, in which he investigates his own role in the massacres of Palestinians and Lebanese Shia Muslims during the 1982 Lebanon War. While Fontana found inspiration for Azor from his grandfather’s journal written during his visit to the junta-ruled Argentina, he also wondered about the price of the comfortable life that he has live. “In Switzerland, we all benefit from the bank,” Fontana said in an interview to Filmmaker Magazine. “The health system comes from the bank; public school comes from here… [Azor is] a way to reflect on where I’m coming from.” The reflection offered at the end of 110 minutes of Azor is for all of us to ponder upon.

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Monday, July 04, 2022