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Review: Azor Is a Quietly Chilling Journey into Argentina’s Heart of Darkness

While there’s never a moment of overt violence in Azor, a river of blood courses beneath every impeccably composed frame.

Photo: MUBI

Andreas Fontana’s Azor begins with a flurry of names. “Farrell,” “Keys,” “Bijou,” “Tatoski,” “Dante,” and “Lacrosteguy” are all dropped within the first few scenes before we’ve met any of the people to whom these names belong. This flood of proper nouns is pregnant with mystery and wholly appropriate to the film’s milieu: the rarified world of early-‘80s Argentina’s elite, among whom certain family names carry a weight equivalent to titles like president or general. Into this world steps a Swiss financier (Fabrizio Rongione) whose own status-denoting patronymic, Yvan De Wiel, is representative of a venerable private bank that bears his family’s name. Yvan, with his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau) in tow, has been dispatched to Argentina to check in on the firm’s rich and powerful clients after Keys, the company’s previous man in Buenos Aires, has suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.

As he networks with wealthy land owners, powerful businessmen, and a well-connected bishop (Pablo Torre Nilson), Yvan cautiously investigates the disappearance of his partner, gradually discovering that Keys’s exuberant methods and political dabbling have ruffled some feathers within Argentine high society. Yvan, however, is ultimately less interested in finding Keys than he is in preserving the bank’s business, which faces some stiff competition from vulgar public banks like Credit Suisse. Genteel, quietly charming, and eminently discreet, Yvan insinuates himself into Buenos Aires’s aristocracy with ease though not without effort. Unflappable in public, Yvan is quietly racked with self-doubt, afraid that he’s an inferior businessman to Keys and that, with one false move, he could sully his family’s good name. Inés, even more unwilling to lose the couple’s upper-crust status than her husband, suggests a subtle Lady Macbeth type, goading Yvan into action with little digs at his ego that she knows will only serve to harden his resolve. “Your father was right,” she tells him. “Fear makes you mediocre.”

Meanwhile, as this bourgeois clique plays its power-and-money games, average Argentinians are suffering the pangs and paroxysms of the Dirty War, in which leftists and political dissidents are being targeted by the country’s military junta. When they first arrive in the country, Yvan and Inés witness the effects of the repression firsthand as a seemingly arbitrary arrest of a student by military police blocks traffic on the way to their hotel. The Dirty War has even started to turn its sights on the ruling class, disappearing the politically engaged daughter of one of Yvan’s clients. As Nilson’s bishop ominously puts it to Yvan, Argentina is in the midst of “a purification phase” during which “parasites must be eradicated.” For the most part, however, the military government isn’t an antagonist to Yvan but a potential partner, one whose murderousness may in fact open up an attractive new revenue stream.

We come to understand that Yvan and, by extension, his clients’ well-cultivated air of refinement masks a savage indifference to the brutality being waged against the people of Argentina, and Fontana brilliantly mirrors this “banality of evil” theme in the film’s very form. With its elegantly restrained cinematography, exquisitely understated performances, and quietly sumptuous production design, Azor embodies the same well-mannered urbanity as Yvan himself. Set almost exclusively in comfortably furnished hotels, fancy country estates, and well-lacquered private clubs, the film takes place in a world far removed from the sociopolitical tension gripping the country. And yet, while there’s never a moment of overt violence in Azor, a river of blood courses beneath every impeccably composed frame.

According to Fontana, Azor was inspired by a diary that his Swiss-banker grandfather used to catalogue a 1980 trip to Argentina to visit clients, and in language that the filmmaker found surprisingly “mundane and banal.” The film manages to evoke that chilling mundanity without becoming dull through the careful construction of its central mystery: What exactly was Keys up to, and why did he disappear? Yvan’s search for Keys nods toward Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, explicitly so in a final chapter in which Yvan travels upriver by boat to a destination that will alter the course of his life, but the allusion turns out to be deliberately misleading.

Whereas Marlow comes face to face with the malignant soul of colonialism, embodied in Kurtz, at the end of Conrad’s novel, the dark heart of Azor lies in Yvan himself. Whatever may have happened to Keys is ultimately irrelevant, as he’s simply a casualty of the same neoliberal death machine whose wheels Yvan is all too happy to grease. Fontana’s film ends not with Yvan achieving some transformative revelation about the nature of capitalism, but with the man experiencing a catharsis of relief and self-satisfaction. And why shouldn’t he be happy? In finding a way to profit off of the savage brutality of the junta, Yvan has done his family proud.

Cast: Fabrizio Rongione, Stephanie Cléau, Elli Medeiros, Alexandre Trocki, Gilles Privat, Juan Pablo Geretto, Carmen Iriondo, Yvain Juillard, Pablo Torre Nilson, Juan Trench Director: Andreas Fontana Screenwriter: Andreas Fontana Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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