An incredibly confident and effective first feature film from Andreas Fontana, this slow burn of a thriller follows Yvan de Wiel, a private Swiss banker, as he tries to navigate Argentina as it slips into dictatorship while trying to pick up for a talented but ethically compromised banking partner who’s disappeared.
The film shows Yvan and his wife, Ines, as calm, cool, and collected as they visit with and try to placate these Uber-rich clients. The clients are watching the world change around them, worried that their assets will be taken by the military, and in the background hums the fact that their normal point of contact, Yvan’s business partner René Keys, has gone missing. His style is contrary to Yvan, who’s cautious and careful, and he exists as one of those great movie characters who’s largely absent from the film. The viewer’s impression of the man is filled in by what everyone else is saying about him, by reputation and by wondering the shape of the man based on the hole his absence left behind.
I saw reference, in three separate reviews, to this being reminiscent of Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” so naturally I had to watch it to see. Reed’s version is more consequential, where all the whisperings and murmurings about the mysterious Harry Lime, who’s supposed death leads to funeral in the first moments of the film, actually are rewarded, in a quite fantastical reveal that (spoiler alert) Lime isn’t actually dead. In a special introduction recorded for the Criterion Collection, Peter Bogdanovich talked about how Orson Welles, who played Harry Lime, called his performance “a star role” because the movie spent the first 45 minutes calling out his characters name and when he finally shows up, audiences credit very little done on his part to superb acting. He was being modest, as Bogdanovich’s laughter would suggest, because it was a superb performance, but his greater point was this: The pump was primed for Harry Lime to show up on screen, and all the tension that had been built up waiting for him couldn’t help but feel like a gratifying release when he appears. There is no such release in “Azor.” If anything, the film is constantly ramping up the tension, slowly but steadily, and if an audience seeks a release, the film does not grant it.
Fontana’s approach to presenting Keys through his absence is precisely how he presents the entirety of the film, specifically with respect to the military violence and scare tactics. “Azor” is not a high-octane film; it is not trying to be an entry in the Bourne series. Much of what happens in the film is only talked about but never seen. Violence and worse is always under the surface, but it stays there; it remains subtext for these ultra wealthy clients. But Fontana does so much with what he does not show to the audience; the film evokes a mood that envelops the watcher, and one immediately knows all is not right in Argentina.
The film’s title means “Be quiet, careful what you say,” and Fontana seems to have taken such advice to heart, leading to a great and understated debut.