Andreas Fontana’s exquisite, quietly dazzling feature Azor answers a question we didn’t know we had: how to make a mystery—a thriller, even—set in the world of private banking. Partly: it’s about the arrival of a Swiss banker, Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), in early 1980s Buenos Aires, when Argentina is still in the grip of dictatorship. De Wiel is there to take on the wealthy (and suspicious) clients of a colleague, Keys, who has disappeared, leaving a flamboyant reputation. Often accompanied by his wife, Inès (Stéphanie Cléau), he’s left to navigate the already murky areas of hush-hush finance under the shadow of a violent state. Throughout there’s the unsettling frisson of worlds of power encountering one another in the wild—the Argentine rich, their country’s expropriating military, and De Wiel himself as European banker seemingly accustomed to so-called civilized ways of doing business.
In one of the most fully realized debuts in years, Azor immerses us in its rarefied milieu of corruption and colonial privilege with across-the-board strengths in performances, production design, visual scheme and so on. Fontana’s film premiered this March at the Berlinale and opens here on September 10, but in August 2020, the title appeared in the Locarno festival’s “Films from Tomorrow” response to the pandemic pall over production. In his director’s statement, Fontana recalled talking with Mariano Llinás (who has a writing credit on Azor) about Hugo Santiago, the Argentine director of the great 1969 curio Invasión. He praised its mystery and melancholy, and for my money (so to speak) Azor sustains its own ambiguities brilliantly in its portrayal of diplomatic brinksmanship and moral compromise.
Born in Geneva, Fontana knew Argentina from travel and film school, but the history of one of his own family members brought on the spark of curiosity. Having admired the film at the Berlinale earlier in the year, I spoke with him shortly before the film’s U.S. release.
Filmmaker: What was the inspiration for this story? Why did you want to make it now?
Fontana: It’s maybe difficult to understand the movie if you don’t know where it comes from. I come from a rather bohemian background. My father is a sculptor, my stepfather is a painter, my mother is a poet in a way. But this bohemian background of my mother and my father was built in the rigidity—[a police siren goes by] A cop!
As I was saying, there was this rigidity or violence of their parents’ world. One of my grandparents was a judge and the other was a banker. I don’t think you can represent what the Protestant society better than this pure image: on the one hand, you have a morality, and on the other hand, you have the money. So, I’m not speaking about respectability, I’m just speaking about this severity of morality and opulence.
I think Azor comes from here, and it is built against this world that my parents’ generation did not know what to do with—except to flee, because it was a little bit like they did that. Because in Switzerland, we all benefit from the bank. The health system comes from the bank, public school comes from here. We have the best—not the best, because you have better—practically the best free university in the world. It’s quite free. It comes from the bank.
Filmmaker: And they support art too.
Fontana: Yes, absolutely. So, it’s not ingratitude on my part. It’s a way to reflect on where I’m coming from.
Filmmaker: It’s also a classical milieu, because it’s a very subtle drama of manners, diplomacy, behind the scenes. Do you view it as part of a larger tradition in that regard?
Fontana: It’s a bourgeois, upper class milieu, which has a lot of interest. What was interesting was not the first layer but what was hidden in this particular way of talking, this mundanity. Mundane language is very interesting to me because if you are in any mundane salon or [social] event, you can understand that the important thing is not what the people are saying but what they are thinking about the others and how power is working. So, this particular mechanism was very interesting.
Filmmaker: I love that in many scenes, the banker’s wife gives a kind of post-game analysis. She explains to him what is happening and what he should be careful about. Is that also a bit from personal experience, how these relationships play out?
Fontana: Yeah, it’s two different things. On one hand I have to say, I met a lot of bankers—men—and it was interesting… but one day I met the wife of a banker, and it was much more interesting, because she was not saying to me the bullshit the bankers were saying to me. She was really talking about feelings, what it was to live with a banker. Then on the other hand, it’s a very simple political reason. History is full of men doing things, and women just maybe being beautiful—I think it’s completely false. It’s a question of representation, so now we know that we are in a better position to understand that. We need to change the way of representing that.
Filmmaker: You mentioned your grandfather was a banker. What did you learn from him? I read that you found a notebook of his. What was in there?
Fontana: I have to explain something very clearly here. In the movie there is nothing biographical about my grandfather. My grandfather was never doing business in Argentina. But I found some notebook of him traveling partly in Argentina, partly in Brazil, during those years—not doing business but just visiting friends in this milieu. He was really just on holiday. I just thought about that, and I said to myself, “OK, my grandfather was very diplomatic, so he knew—he was reading the newspaper all the day, and all the bankers read the newspaper for the context.” And the notebook didn’t mention anything about the dictator or the violence. And I just thought about this: why this absence? Why didn’t he talk about that? This whole absence was interesting to me like… horchamps?
Fontana: Offscreen, yes. So, I began with this kind of offscreen intuition. But clearly it was not about my grandfather’s experience of doing this stuff.
Filmmaker: He didn’t work with a junta.
Filmmaker: You cast a number of people who are not actors but who move in this upper-class Argentine milieu. Why did you choose to use them, and why do you think they agreed to take part?
Fontana: The reason why I did it was different than the reason they did it. I did it because I was very interested in having those bodies in the movies, those faces, without any standardization, any beauty. Because they are not “beautiful,” they are just like they are, with imperfections, tics, things like that. But not only that, there was also their feeling of the dominant class—impunity, we can say. Because they are all bankers, lawyers, businesspeople. I wanted to bring that universe into the film. I was sure that it could bring something very special.
I wondered if they would not accept, because it is a touchy subject and a strong moment in history. But we have to admit that human beings are very, very narcissistic. I think it was only a narcissistic reason.
Filmmaker: Where did you start with your vision for the film, the editing and the staging especially?
Fontana: Maybe one of the first images I had of the movie was very precise: two couples in a salon, very cozy, just talking, seated. It was a very strong image, obsessive, and so I said, “OK, it will be a movie about shot/contrechamps [countershot].” I talked with the DoP, and he said, “What! shot/contrechamps is very boring.” I said, “It will be only shot/contrechamps and don’t worry, it will be very interesting.” So, we worked out this minimalist language of how to use the shot/contrechamps in terms of power: who will get the power in the situation and how the power is changing from one character to another, and then [the role of] suspicion, you know? Because there is always a suspicion between one character and another, like a round of evaluation. Everyone is always evaluated by the others.
This is kind of a very simple shape of tension, but I have to say I am a very minimalist person. I am very confident in the power of cinema to bring effects from very few things. For example, I tried to never make a cut without its being very, very necessary. In this way I am very purist.
Filmmaker: Could you talk about the opening shot? It’s a terrific beginning, like a prologue or overture: a hulking man in a suit against a jungle-like background. You have a double moment: first, he looks a little shocked or even panicked, and then more comfortable. I took it to be Keys.
Fontana: I wrote this scene because I thought it could bring some very strong feeling and a way to see the movie without explaining it. But then it was interesting because my experience was that spectators forget the first scene, and sometimes people when they try to remember, they say, “Ah, I get it, it’s Keys.” And I say, “If you want, it’s Keys, and if you don’t, it doesn’t matter.” Some people see Keys in a very precise manner, with a very precise face, and I cannot control the way they project the body and appearance of Keys. So, I think it was just a way to work [through suggestion], to show something to the spectator as a kind of a detective. In this way, the spectator has to bring his own meaning to this opening sequence.
Filmmaker: This is a period movie set in the early 1980s, but you avoid the pitfall of feeling like everything about the production design screams “We’re in the early 1980s!” How did you work this out with your art director Ana Cambre and otherwise? Are there movies that you think do an especially good or bad job of evoking the past in this way?
Fontana: Yes, it was very simple because first of all, yes, I referenced a movie, but just for what we didn’t want to do. What we didn’t want to do is that when we see the frame, we say, “OK, this book is from ’81, this glass is from the model of ’81, and this other thing is also from the year 1981.” I mean this is completely false because in every situation, we have a different [group] of references.
What we did was very simple, because I personally chose maybe 70 percent of the locations. These weren’t the usual locations for cinema, they were special locations I found by myself. I chose them because I felt that something was completely frozen in time, between a past and a present completely difficult to identify. And we always took away what was too modern—anything that was too explicit in terms of modernity or even as a marker of history. That was the idea. But, of course, it’s important not just to make a look but to play the code of the period movie, so the spectator understands when it is. We just try to do it with very few things.
Filmmaker: Can you say what movie you didn’t want it to be like?
Fontana: [laughs] No, I’m not so bad a guy… But you know, it’s strange, for example I read in the press [reports] that it’s maybe like a Godfather movie. I like Godfather a lot, but I never thought about Godfather when I made the movie. I think it’s much more modest, this movie, in terms of mise en scene.
I will not be modest in this way: I just tried to make a movie I hadn’t seen before. That’s all.
Filmmaker: I think you did. Just sticking with the look for a moment, could you talk about the color palette? It’s well-defined again without feeling like it pops too much with the period.
Fontana: Yeah. Actually, it was also intuitive because I absolutely do not come from the painting [perspective], I’m more like a musician. Color for me is more intuitive: when I think it is too much pop, I say it’s too much pop. Actually, these people are not pop: they do not want to be visible, they are discreet. And of course the greens were important for the movie for the reason you can imagine: not exactly Apocalypse Now but more Heart of Darkness, the Conrad book. I don’t hide it.
Filmmaker: De Weil is quietly fascinating—it’s an interesting poker game he plays at. It’s hard to figure out how naive he is at times. And this is relevant because it affects how we judge his morality. How much is he playing innocent, and how much is a calculated ignorance of the sort employed by bankers, lawyers, people in executive settings?
Fontana: Yeah, I think the difficulty was very easy to summarize. When you have a banker as a protagonist, you have a problem with the spectator, because the spectator will not accept him like a friend. It’s not very easy to have a banker as a protagonist. I didn’t want to make him a cynical character. I’m not cynical, I think it’s not interesting. Also, a completely naive character was not interesting because there is no naive banker in the world. A banker is not naive. So, I was just trying to follow the intuition in my way of seeing a banker: completely a double game. In a way he seems a little bit like a fool—a little bit polite, not very clever, but then he’s always calculating the risk: where is the benefit, where is the way to get a better situation? So, this [improvisational nature] of the character was my shape. But it’s true that he’s a passive character.
Filmmaker: Reflecting on your grandfather having made this, what did you come to think about him? At the time of growing up it’s almost as if you’re too close to see him as a person in the world.
Fontana: I have to say when you work with familiar material, you have to fight with that because it’s normal. My grandfather was absolutely not Yvan De Wiel or like Keys. I think Keys did exist. My grandfather was much more interesting in a way, because he was a frustrated writer. So he was very into literature. What I thought about my grandfather is that before he died… I never thought about it. But when he died, I thought my grandfather was not so clean. Because there is no banker who keeps completely clean like that. The work don’t let you. So, I thought, how did he do this kind of monkey business? In terms of morality, was he conscious of this ambiguity he was working with, and what kind of border was he crossing, or flirting with? I was very curious, and also a little bit concerned. Yes, it was a motivation for me to investigate this moral ambiguity.
Filmmaker: What are you filming or writing next? I’m so curious.
Fontana: [chuckles] Me too. I’m working now on another movie. Not historical, but a kind of historical movie, more about diplomatic milieu: in Geneva in the early ’90s, when the Soviet Union falls, this moment of very strange history. This is the project.
Nicolas Rapold is a critic and editor. He hosts the podcast The Last Thing I Saw, featuring conversations with critics and filmmakers.