“Show, don’t tell,” says conventional wisdom. “Conceal, conceal, conceal” responds director Andreas Fontana, whose repetitive-but-impactful debut feature “Azor” paints a portrait of fear using palpable gaps in conversation. As a Swiss banker, Yvan (Fabrizio Rongione) follows in the footsteps of his missing colleague, and Fontana’s self-assured filmmaking captures a chilling atmosphere against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War. The film seldom wavers from its singular idea and feeling; tonally, it’s a stroll across a plateau by design, but it teeters constantly over that plateau’s edge.
A false tropical backdrop and washed-out footage of a well-dressed man with a forced smile yank us into the story and its permeating sense of artifice. Perhaps this man is Yvan’s missing business partner, or perhaps he is the idea of an influential outsider under the thumb of vastly more influential local forces. This is the world Yvan enters with his wife Ines (Stéphanie Cléau), and as they arrive at their Buenos Aires hotel in late 1970s; a brief, hot-and-cold chat with the receptionist hints at the conversational maze they’re about to enter. The recent FIFA World Cup is a delightful subject of small talk. Anything to do with the government? Not so much.
The film’s plot is threadbare, since Yvan’s investigation into his partner’s disappearance neither turns up concrete answers, nor forms the central reason for his arrival. He’s a man slotted to fill an empty space in the world of private banking, and he’s often treated as such. A series of powerful men who answer to even more powerful men welcome him with polite smiles, into fancy rooms, smoky lounges, and ornate gardens. Based on their conversations, Yvan is clearly within the gravitational pull of money and power. However, these men’s silences around certain topics and certain people creates a mystery around the mass keeping Yvan in orbit.
Some silences are fearful, broken up only by whispers and innuendo. Other silences wield power. They’re dismissive and impenetrable — almost dehumanizing. Yet all the while, neither tight-lipped group sheds their suits and evening gowns, or their “civil” upper-class veneer. The silences are, in a way, complicit, given how removed these characters feel from the on-the-ground reality of mass murder and anti-communist juntas. Their fancy, warmly lit spaces and lush estates are almost hermetically sealed; even Yvan ignores the public effects of the military checkpoint en route to his hotel, and as he reads an article about local hyper-inflation, he casually trades stock by telephone. Whether he likes it or not, he’s a part of this sinister culture, though just how much will depend on with whom he’s willing to fall in line.
There’s an unease to every conversation, beginning with linguistic disconnects; an uncertainty that doesn’t begin to fade until the participants scout out a common tongue. Usually, they land on Spanish, English or French. Colonial languages. A dueling sense of morality pervades each sit-down too. You know why each person is there — to find information, to make a business transaction, and so forth — but why they’re really there is a question that gets under your skin, even though the simple answer is obviously money. The more complicated answer involves the structures and people left out of frame, and the unspoken harm these people have done to earn their generational wealth. These characters are, at once, in danger from some unseen force, and dangerous to unseen others.
How effective “Azor” is will likely depend on your appetite for an aesthetically pleasing slow-burn, not to mention, one that says nearly the same thing with every scene. Thankfully, the film is a mere 100 minutes long — a far cry from co-screenwriter Mariano Llinás’ 14-hour headache “La Flor” — but its aesthetic pleasures are also a major part of its story’s allure. Modern hotels evoke extravagance through dim, warm lighting, but the visual contrast here is pushed just enough that even the welcoming, vibrant skin tones in the center of the frame are surrounded by shadow and darkness in its corners.
Adding to this eeriness is some truly engaging sound design, which would no doubt be a treat in theatres, but which even your TV couldn’t possibly stifle. An enveloping mix for the chatty atmosphere makes you feel constantly surrounded by people, while the enrapturing, almost funky score by Paul Courlet features notes that are just a little too high, and held a little too long for comfort (you’d be forgiven if Courlet’s echoing harpsichord makes you picture an ornate Transylvanian castle, with bloodlust lurking behind its doors).
After a while, Fontana begins filming Yvan’s surroundings from further away, sometimes through the character’s POV, but always with more than just one subject in frame. Even if it’s simply an extra walking by, they leave a lingering sensation — a query as to why they were being filmed or noticed in the first place, and why exactly they’ve caught Yvan’s eye. It feels like paranoia seeping into the film’s visual fabric. Repetitive or not, it’s undoubtedly effective.
MUBI will release “Azor” at New York’s IFC Center on September 10, with a nationwide theatrical rollout to follow.
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