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Berlinale Review: Andreas Fontana's "Azor"

A mystery set in 1980 Argentina, Andreas Fontana's remarkably well-crafted debut keeps the era's terror off-screen but never forgotten.
Daniel Kasman
In a festival where one typically expects a film debut to be youthfully unkempt and overeager, the Swiss director Andreas Fontana has premiered something most unusual with the sly and intriguing Azor: A debut that is well-composed, consummately controlled, and carefully discreet. But perhaps this approach is in order to so perfectly fit its subject matter, which is the glossy surface—all suits and business-speak—of private banking for deplorable people.
Set in 1980, the film follows Swiss banker Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), who has been sent to Argentina to make the rounds with his firm’s private clientele, picking up the pieces left by his predecessor, currently missing (but definitely not tied up in a basement somewhere in Buenos Aires, we are assured). De Wiel is traveling with his elegant wife (Stéphanie Cléau) at his side, and together the pair are like finance’s Nick and Nora, securing accounts and inquiring after the bank’s missing partner with cocktails in hand. As she advises him in an increasingly euphemistic manner to be more charming, less reserved, De Wiel tries to resume relationships with the rich and powerful who seem to be floating far above a desperate and murderous Argentina—an atmosphere that pointedly barely intrudes into Fontana’s ominously tactful mise-en-scène. 
On the trail of this man, the evocatively named Keys, the banker goes deeper and deeper into the upper-echelon of the country, but mostly finds only cryptic remarks and allusions to depravity rather than a direct story of what happened to him—or is happening, around the country, in the form of repression and disappearances. How much De Wiel knows, or desires to find out, is always in question. The film’s elegant veneer slyly mimics the surface gentility that covers not just the banking world, but the governments—whatever they may do or stand for—that it assists. In this sidelong manner, the film becomes a minimalist mystery—Mariano Llinás, whose La flor also played cleverly with genre convention, collaborated on the screenplay. The film references Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but its intriguingly cryptic genre-play is not limited to this: each rich client encountered has the kind of wonderfully memorable face, not to mention luxurious lifestyle (the film is an unassuming parade of mansions, clubs, fancy restaurants, horse stables, and owner's boxes), of a 1940s detective film.
The genre undercurrent lends the film the dryness of Christian Petzold’s thrillers, which similarly submerge behind a cool surface haunting crimes and unseen ghosts. As unassuming as a well-dressed man in a suit, Azor cleverly keeps all sins off-camera, for we are above seeing such things, aren’t we? Nothing to worry about here, just business as usual. The film’s politeness is almost chilling in its handsome calm, so much so that it frequently verges on the droll. To the film's credit, it never fully tips its hand. We peek behind the curtain but only enough to confirm what we already feared. Azor lets us follow a mystery whose solution most will have guessed well before its end, so that we can see the manner by which such mysteries are buried in the banalities of the world’s wealth.


Andreas FontanaBerlinaleBerlinale 2021Festival Coverage
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