Imagine if Graham Greene rewrote Apocalypse Now, replacing the jungle with the superb hotels, racecourses, ranches and gentlemen’s clubs favoured by the ruling Argentinian military junta of the late 1970s, and you’ll have a polo park idea of how intriguing a conspiracy thriller the Swiss-Argentinian-French production Azor is.
Our guides to this soigné heart of darkness are Swiss private banker Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione, who has the gliding presence of a fair-haired Robert Vaughan) and his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau, a note-perfect incarnation of francophile glamour and narrow-eyed shrewdness), who is his spy and close career advisor as much as his paramour.
They’re newly arrived in a Buenos Aires riven with terror. Young protestors are being ‘disappeared’. Similarly vanished is Yvan’s predecessor René Keys, who, as Yvan keeps being reminded, was a man of genius and charisma like Harry Lime. Yvan tells everyone that Keys is fine, he’s simply had enough, but the suspicion is that, as one contact remarks, “he’s in some Argentinian basement”.
Under the pretence of doing a diplomatic ‘camel’s tour’ of the country, Yvan has a short list of rich clients he needs to confirm still want his bank’s discreet services – the removal and management of their capital and assets out of the country. But he knows he must not overreach and fail any of them.
In Keys’s abandoned apartment he finds a list like his own but with an extra name. His working through meeting these names structures a film in which people tread softly over thick carpets, exhibit an imported European patrilineal snobbery and where which jacket you choose to wear is crucial. Apocalypse Now’s arrows are replaced by allusive remarks. The De Wiels know that one false move or indiscretion and they too could meet a dire end like Leopolda (who we only see in a photo), daughter of one of Yvan’s clients and member of ‘a political group’, who can’t be located even though her father is an ex-military man.
As one elegant ghoul explains, it’s “a purification phase, parasites must be eradicated”. There’s an enigmatic saying they use for people who can’t be trusted: ‘he has two yolks’, like the fixer Farrell (Ignatio Vila), one of Yvan’s targets, who can be both impulsively threatening and ridiculous at the same time.
Restraint and alarm are the film’s keynotes, with a hint of wry black comedy in every exchange. At parties you hear the music you expect, ‘one note samba’ and such, but the electronic soundtrack music intrudes in loud OTT interludes, as if to break up the overall quietude.
Considering how glamorous the locations are, and how many are outdoors, Swiss-born, Argentine-resident writer-director Andreas Fontana does a wonderful job of keeping the atmosphere menacing and claustrophobic in his feature debut. He and his writing partner Mariano Llinás (writer-director of the epic arthouse success La Flor) have concocted here a portrait of the Argentinian junta’s milieu that draws on a rich history of archetypes from Cortés to Macbeth. Azor, we’re told, in this context means ‘be quiet’ and/or ‘careful what you say’, so you’ll never hear about ‘the horror’.
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