Written by Andreas Fontana and Mariano Llinás
Directed by Andreas Fontana
Something is wrong in Argentina. From the moment Azor begins, you feel disturbing things; the music and images hint at more sinister machinations at work. But on the surface, it seems…okay? The filmmakers have put their audience in the shoes of people attempting to navigate life under a dictatorship in Latin America. Azor is set in 1980 during the Dirty War when right-wing death squads scoured the country of anyone suspected of supporting socialism or other left-wing movements. This military junta killed between 9,000 to 30,000 people. Hard numbers are hard to get because so many of these people were disappeared overnight and never seen again, with no formal record of what happened to them.
Swiss private banker Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) has come to Argentina with his wife Ines (Stéphanie Cléau) to discover what became of his partner Keys. The film shows Keys only once and becomes a phantom, a ghost looming over this haunted city and its dangerous corners. De Wiel has a list of clients and goes to meet with each one, and each appointment pulls him deeper into the mystery his colleague has left behind. De Wiel sees his primary purpose as closing up the business Keys left on the table but discovers a possible business venture kept off the books.
The opening scenes feature De Wiel and Ines sitting in their car, their driver telling them everything is fine, while in the background, two young men are searched and lightly roughed up by soldiers. De Wiel gets away because he is protected as a foreigner serving the interests of the elite. Every time the couple leaves their hotel or the safety of a benevolent client’s home, we begin to worry if they will be the ones pushed up against the wall next. Conversations with innocuous hotel workers or employees turn sinister when they start to drop hints they know more than they let on. De Wiel even tells one of his superiors back in Switzerland that he feels deeply uneasy being here, and we can certainly relate as we watch the tale unfold.
Director Andreas Fontana has no interest in delivering a rote by the numbers plot. This is a story with big gaps and fragments in the evidence. It provides a conclusive ending but without answering every question. De Wiel finds closure to his particular investigation, but the larger, more tragic elements of what will happen to the people he meets remain hanging out there. One of Keys’ clients tells of his only daughter, whom he was grooming and trusted to handle the family business, becoming involved with political groups the government did not approve of. She vanished months ago, and there’s never an answer for what happened; her father simply spends the rest of his days wondering, dread in his stomach as he knows without fully knowing.
There’s no blood and extremely little violence in Azor, but that doesn’t hold back the sense of danger. De Wiel speaks with influential people who know they don’t have to raise their voices to stab terror like needles into their target. This story works in the same milieu as The Third Man or any of Graham Greene’s espionage-focused novels. Danger is ever-present but not often directly confrontational. Threats are framed as polite suggestions, and an astute listener will heed them. De Wiel meets a priest at a gentlemen’s club who refers to the junta as a time of purification, words that cut to the core of anyone who fully understands what is going on. Fontana makes sure we link the archetypes of power (church, state, commerce) to a criminal underbelly that has been enabled by authority focusing on political enemies rather than danger to the people’s safety.
The film was inspired by a letter Fontana found to his father from a Swiss banker friend. The banker tells of his trip to Argentina and never revealed if he was in any danger. To Fontana, it read as a letter someone wrote on a seemingly uneventful trip. The man helped clients in the purchase and transfer of assets and stocks. Nothing special. But Fontana ruminated on this, knowing what was happening in Argentina at the time, and decided to tell a story about how the passive nature of capitalism often enables great evil in the world. By trying to make things normal, business as usual, people like De Wiel only helped keep the criminal junta going. Blood is not only on the hands of the one doing the killing but also on those of the people who aid them.