Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 02, 2021 1:38 pm 
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The turning of a Swiss banker

With AzoR, Andreas Fontana's lavish debut is something rare, if not for every taste. It's a bit of a slow burner; its climax is a smug smile. Its score consists of discreet throbs, coming more often toward the end than at the beginning of an event. Believe it or not, it's a Swiss film about banking, private banking, that is. Coming at the latter part (1980) of Argentina's 1976-1983 "Dirty War," when assassinations, disappearances, and highway robbery were rife. Into this world comes Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), partner in a private Swiss bank that bears his name, with his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau), together on a visit to Buenos Aires from Geneva. He will have to clean up, repair bridges, meet people at the very top of the country's power structure. De Wiel's partner René Keys, who dealt with the Argentinians, has suddenly disappeared.

Technically, perhaps, this is an Argentinian film. Fontana is Swiss, but he makes his home in Argentina now. He is introducing someone he might have known into a world, that is a time, he himself is visiting - because he was not in Buenos Aires in 1980. This makes a nice companion piece for the early films of Pablo Larraín. It is more gilt-edged version of the South American dictatorship nightmare.

Graham Greene and Conrad have been mentioned, and also John Le Carré as shot by Coppola. This film is grand, and filled with menace. It is a very, very slow burner, but the menace is always there from the start. Even the language seems treacherous, the way everybody switches back and forth from French - to comfort De Wiel and his wife (but the latter is often excluded from discussions in this male-dominated country), or Spanish, to comfort everybody else. And you never know when they will switch, or what secrets anyone is harboring. You may want to say: Wait! Let the banker meet with people in a bank. Because there De Wiel might be more at ease, rather than a club belonging to the ruling junta, a race course, a lavish party, or a swimming pool, or driven somewhere in a car whose chauffeur he does not know. De Wiel doesn't even swim, ever, his wife says. Indeed he does not look good even in shirtsleeves. Throughout the many testing scenes the high-level mise-en-scène never ceases to impress and even to delight. Fontana seems to have all the means necessary at his disposal.

Much of the time, early on at least, De Wiel looks uncomfortable. Indeed the main job for actor Fabrizio Rongione (a Belgian, despite the name), one he performs extremely well, is very slowly and subtly to sweat, wilt, and go pale, while remaining impeccably polite and wearing the proper outfits and maintaining a superficially calm and proper demeanor. The object of De Weil's wife, when she appears, when not merely smoking a cigarette in a fine dress and talking to a sad woman from a once important family who has much to be silent about, is to give her husband pep talks, or chide him not to give in to cowardice or fear. Someone says of Key's disappearance that any man has a right to be afraid at certain times and places. And indeed we sense that these scenes are such times and places. Thoroughbred horses and favorite daughters suddenly disappear all the time. Whether Keys got out or is locked in a basement is not entirely certain.

Slowly, De Wiel drifts into what is essentially insanity - learning to deal with a high level criminal element (one junta honcho is a collared monsignor). He is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of replacing Keys, evidently a bold, eccentric risk-taker whom everybody loved and utterly unlike himself. But probably his discretion will work better for the junta, in the end. The Heart of Darkness, after four other chapters, is "Lazaro." It is a place somewhere upriver, where De Weil will hear a lengthy listing of what must be essentially hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stolen goods these men would like him to help them turn into cash. As before, he maintains a calm demeanor. He is ready for it, after all. His wife was right, And the final image as he is taken back to town is that quiet, satisfied smile. It's a very neat and expressive ending to this thought-provoking film. Is the focus too specific and rooted in its time and place, to be of wide interest? I didn't think that while watching Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero (NYFF 2008) and Post Mortem (NYFF (2010). They were more colorful. They had Alfredo Castro. But this is creepy in its own very confident way.

Cowritten by Fontana with Mariano Llinás, writer-director of the arthouse epic La Flor.

Azor, 100 mins., debuted March 2021 at the Berlinale; also showed at Moscow. It was screened online for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021).

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