Review: Thriller 'Azor' craftily threads the needle of high finance in 1980 Argentina

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A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a junta, Swiss filmmaker Andreas Fontana’s ominously stirred thriller “Azor” drops us in Argentina circa 1980 when the country was in the grip of a military-led terror campaign. But our locales are places of secluded luxury, where fear of disappearance applied to assets more than people and rumors of bad things in other places still won’t disrupt cocktail soirees, pool time or racing thoroughbreds.

For a one percent unsure of their footing in a turbulent new world that might target them next, the personal attention of wealth managers becomes an essential security. When third-generation Swiss banker Yvan (Fabrizio Rongione) and his refined wife Ines (Stéphanie Cléau) travel from Geneva to Buenos Aires, it’s to ensure the continued business of a legacy outfit’s well-heeled but increasingly nervous clients. But also hovering over Yvan’s tour of estates, back rooms and VIP lounges is a question not as easily answerable in the ledgers of a portfolio or the financial pages — what happened to Yvan’s partner Keys, who was handling these accounts, and who’s gone missing?

Keys is a touchy subject that preoccupies Yvan as he and Ines make their rounds, but with each visit, the portrait of Yvan’s vanished colleague adds to the feeling that something was amiss in his dealings. One affluent client admits to feeling a close bond with Keys, but the wife believed him to be a “despicable manipulator.” Was he brilliant but careless? Hiding something? On to something?

In one sense, the architecture of Fontana’s and co-writer Mariano Llinas’ finely crafted screenplay is a classic puzzle, with a possible victim, a milieu of violence, cryptic clues and a crafty protagonist meeting characters who might be holding something back about the missing man. In this respect, it’s tempting to think of Keys — clearly a cunning individual who nurtured the intimacies his job afforded — as an absence/presence in the mold of Harry Lime in the noir classic “The Third Man.”

Except there is no Orson Welles to answer a question of intent and circumstance with a towering personality, nor is there a Joseph Cotten to delineate good and bad in starkly moral terms. And that’s how Fontana wants his mood-conscious scenario to simmer: with no discernible increase in tension, only the magnetically watchful, diplomatic performance of Rongione to guide us as Yvan comes to terms with who his business partner was, the temperature of a dangerous time and the best course of action.

That makes for a queasy form of moral suspense, especially when cool, calculating Ines — exquisitely played by Cléau — is there to keep her husband focused with the cutting assessment, “Fear makes you mediocre.” The movie exists, after all, in a rarefied world where our main character, in one scene, primes the patronage of the junta’s more well-to-do supporters. And there are none more unnerving than a steely-eyed monsignor (a great Pablo Torre Nilson) who speaks of buying and selling stocks with the same matter-of-factness as when he refers to parasites who need to be eradicated, “even in the best of families.”

To the less patient viewer, the lack of clarity on the finer points of high finance and characters’ backgrounds and not getting period-orienting news updates about the political situation, might seem confounding. But “Azor” works without them, because those details would only disrupt the artfully portentous chill Fontana gets from the pitch-perfect performances and design, and Gabriel Sandru’s cinematography — reminiscent of the great ‘70s cinematographer Gordon Willis’ work — which uses crisp, straightforward compositions to render certain spaces of privilege and power as eternally, blithely stagnant. These are Yvan’s people, however, and as this damning portrait of private banking reveals, he’s ready to navigate them as enterprisingly in the worst of times as he would in the best of times.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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