A quiet chill clings to “Azor,” the debut feature of Argentine filmmaker Andreas Fontana. It’s set among his country’s uber-rich, their grand, inherited estates and stables, their horse racing outings, Michelin star dinners and galas. But they’re a glum lot, filled with resignation or dread.
“Azor” is set a few years after Argentina’s 1976 military coup, the time of “los desaparecidos,” “the disappeared,” when a military dictatorship made tens of thousands of Argentine activists, political rivals and other “undesirables” disappear — one of recent history’s most infamous state-sponsored mass murder programs.
And as many times as our protagonist, the visiting Swiss banker Yvan De Wiel
(Fabrizio Rongione) is told “You don’t understand, this country was a mess” and that the coup brought “much needed reforms” and that “a purification phase” was in order to deal with “parasites,” he’s seeing resignation in the faces and fear in the voices of the well-heeled.
He can tell his wife, confidante and traveling companion Ines (Stéphanie Cléau) “It’s like being in Europe,” but there are soldiers on the streets, stopping anybody young, anybody at all.
And for the rich, who along with the higher-ups in the Argentine Catholic Church who might have backed that coup, the drunken revel in “owning the left” is past. The hangover is here.
“The military is getting restless,” one client sighs (in Spanish, with English subtitles). Another takes them horseback riding, but there is no joy in the outing. His estate is missing one resident. His daughter “disappeared.”
“These days, they don’t have enough with people,” still another gripes. “They ‘disappear’ horses, too.”
And in the small talk of “Do you know Gstaad?” and “You are more than welcome to stay with us when you visit,” Yvan and Ines hear snippets of the unthinkable.
“Did you hear about Perez? They went to his house and took everything from him!”
The oligarchs got their way, a government of their choosing. And now it’s eating them, too.
Fontana’s covering some of the same ground as the Argentine classic “The Official Story” and “The Disappeared.” But he uses a seriously unsympathetic outsider as his and our tour guide, letting one of those famously discrete and infamously amoral Swiss bankers see a nightmare that their clients help bring on by hiding their assets, dodging taxes and backing governments that let them get away with it.
The title is a bit of Swiss (French, Italian and German speakers) banker slang for “ask no questions.” And the story, as its opening chapter reveals, is “The Camel Tour,” a “private” banker coming to the clients, far and wide, trying to help them navigate the shifting political sands and hyper-inflation that dog the country.
He and his wife are there because his bank’s partner, Keys, who ran things in country, might be laying low in Argentina or even Switzerland, or “disappeared.”
They hear an array of opinions about the man, good and loyal to manipulative and crude. Some of the very wealthy — and that’s the only world De Wiel travels in — including the Monsignor (the person to refer to the victims of the regime as “parasites”), have an idea of what happened to Keys.
There are other “commercial” bankers working over this client list, promising investments in currency speculation, which might keep pace with the ruinous inflation — something the rich all over the world fear more than death or dictatorships, their accumulated wealth losing most of its value.
De Wiel has to suffer business and social slights and boorish lawyers (Juan Pablo Geretto), the threat of losing clients to better (currency speculating) offers or to government “interest.” Can he adapt, on the fly, to maintain his business and preserve his own inherited wealth?
Fontana’s film is a cautionary tale an overt red-alert warning. Beware the world you make, superrich. It will eat you, with only the bankers figuring out a way to profit from the violence that comes from extreme wealth disparity and government by kleptocracy. Maybe the police and soldiers and some of the rabble are on your side, for now. But when “the military gets restless…”
Veteran Belgian actor Rongione, last seen in “Rose Island,” makes this poker-faced banker flinch now and again, a man recognizing what’s going wrong and how it will impact him even as he scrambles to piece together the business his partner was mixed up in. When De Wiel faces the indignity of an armed search, he is shocked enough to say the privileged part out loud.
Cléau (“The Blue Room”) is perfectly crisp and businesslike as Ines, a woman whose role is to look tall, thin and rich and charm the wealthy women and men they interact with, rendering this “private banking” personal.
And Geretto stands out in the supporting cast, an oily, blunt speaker of harsh judgments about his countrymen, even those who use his services.
Fontana’s tale is austere, quiet and posh, mirroring the world he’s depicting. There’s enough mystery here to hold our interest. Still, as we count up the mysterious off-camera figures in it — Keys, a rival banker Lutz and the sinister name scribbled on a note left by Keys, the soldier Lazaro — one can’t help but be reminded of “The Third Man” and think Fontana neglects the core mystery and leaves the stakes entirely too low, or at least removed from this world of money and connections.
We see no shootings, no disappearances. There is little in the line of surprise appearances, and De Wiel’s quest is more vague than directed. The coda has a punch and comes completely out of the blue, yet could have used more build up.
But “Azor” is still riveting entertainment and dispiriting in its “It happened there, is it happening here?” allegories. If you aren’t chilled by the consequences of this coup, you must think Jan. 6 was “a normal tourist visit.” Here’s what happens if the next one succeeds, and they come for you.
Cast: Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, Juan Pablo Geretto
Credits: Scripted and directed by Andreas Fontana. A Mubi release.