Azor is a terrifying film which shows very little in the way of violence. This makes it even more frightening. Director and co-writer Andreas Fortuna is Swiss but the film is set entirely in Argentina. Yvan De Wiel is a private banker who arrives in Buenos Aires from Geneva with his wife Inès in late 1980 during the period of the ‘Dirty War’ and the ‘National Re-organisation Process’, overseen by the fascist military junta. De Wiel (played by the Belgian actor Fabrizio Rongione) is on a mission to discover what happened to his banking partner René Keys, who has ‘disappeared’, and to try to sustain his bank’s relationship with its wealthy clients in this difficult period.
The De Wiels are experienced and cunning operators. Yvan acts in a way that suggests he is humble and amenable – he isn’t, but he does depend to some extent on his wife, who chooses his suits and monitors his performances in negotiations. At one point she implies that he risks falling into the ‘mediocrity’ that her father warned her about. Inès moves elegantly through a series of social gatherings, observing and gathering intelligence especially by talking to the wives of the wealthy and influential characters they meet.
There is something familiar about the narrative device of having the protagonist follow in the footsteps of a colleague/partner. Many of the reviewers make references to Harry Lime in The Third Man. I thought instead of another Graham Greene character, The Quiet American. In a crucial passage (the narrative is divided into named sections) De Wiel is taken down river in a small boat. It is one of those South American rivers, smaller than the famous ones, which is overgrown on either bank and which again several reviewers refer to as a Heart of Darkness moment. Keys was clearly a dynamic character who took risks. It got him noticed and made him successful, but by extension perhaps too dangerous. Although Argentina has long been an independent country there are hints here and there of its neo-colonial past and the North American and European involvements in the culture and economy of the country.
The most frightening character is perhaps Mons. Tatoski, a senior cleric who tries to inveigle De Wiel into getting involved in speculation in the Forex (foreign exchange) market. De Wiel makes clear that his private bank doesn’t do anything so risky. What makes this exchange so tense is the setting, in the inner sanctum of a club that presumably has always limited its membership to the rich and powerful. That now means those sanctioned by the junta and the Monsignor is some form of Papal representative with a past, perhaps as a rugby player. He’s tall, beefy and ‘persuades’ De Wiel to drink Gordon’s gin just like Keys before him. This is one of several exchanges in which De Wiel is challenged by existing or potential ‘clients’. Rongione plays De Wiel as a seemingly mild-mannered man, always watchful and appropriately dressed for a club or a trip to the race track but not giving even a hint of what he may be feeling underneath. However, his appropriate wardrobe is not quite right for his trips to meet landowners in the broad hinterland of Buenos Aries. He travels by private plane at one point and goes riding with a client. There is one staggeringly beautiful long shot of De Wiel and Inès riding on the estate of a traditional landowner, Augusto Padel-Camón (see above). Most of the time, however, Swiss cinematographer Gabriel Sandru is confined to shooting interiors or more confined outdoor scenes. These include meetings arranged around swimming pools in private mansions. It’s noticeable that Inès is often the only one who swims. Director Fortuna clearly knows Argentina well but he was helped by the distinguished Argentinian writer Mariano Llinás as co-writer of the script. Paulina (Argentina 2015) is a Llinás films that I enjoyed.
There are no good guys in this film. The narrative pushes us to identify with De Wiel and some of his clients like Padel-Camón, but this is misleading. They are positioned to show aspects of their humanity and Padel-Camon has already suffered the disappearance of his favourite daughter. But underneath they are still primarily concerned with their own wealth and status. The junta is ruthless in arresting and ‘disappearing’ leftists and critics of any kind. But it is also squeezing the wealthy and extracting their riches. The Swiss private banker offers a more personal touch than his corporate rivals but ultimately the deals he makes are about protecting capital and we suspect that though he may not be as flamboyant or dynamic as his erstwhile partner Keys, his quiet methods might get the job done. But what kind of job is it? None of the characters in the film cares about the working people of Argentina. It pains me to think that it was Margaret Thatcher who inadvertently helped to trigger the downfall of the junta by vigorously defending British interests in the Malvinas. The junta fell with its leading figure General Galtieri after the defeat of the Argentinian forces. It was good to see Galtieri go but the whipped up jingoism in the UK helped Thatcher win an election and proceed with her destruction of many British communities. The Swiss private bankers no doubt smuggled wealth out of the country before the fall in 1982 and we get one hint of how they might have done it.
I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Overall I found this a compelling narrative about the ‘fear and loathing’ during this dark period of Argentinian history. For a début film it is remarkable. Sandru’s cinematography is also excellent, given he has relatively little experience of features. But perhaps the key to the film’s success is the casting of Fabrizio Rongione. I realised later that I have actually seen him in a host of rather different roles for the Dardenne Brothers. He must speak several languages and Azor is a narrative that requires a multi-lingual approach. International business usually requires English but here most of the exchanges are in Spanish or French. If you are wondering about the title, the word ‘azor’ in Spanish means ‘goshawk’ but in the code language of the De Wiels it means “be careful”, “don’t give anything away”. Don’t be put off by the relatively low ratings for this film. It’s not a Hollywood thriller but a chilling and very intelligent glimpse of the way in which international capital, traditional landowning classes and fascism mix in Latin America. I recommend it. It has reached some UK, cinemas distributed by MUBI ,and is now streaming on MUBI in the UK.