Director: Andreas Fontana
Stars: Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, Carmen Iriondo
There are few films in recent years that have felt as slippery and evasive as Azor. Considering I have a somewhat high tolerance threshold for obtuse and mysterious cinema, you can take that as your first warning. However, if these are qualities that tend to coax you into leaning forward, this Argentinian debut might be worth keeping on your radar.
Cloaked in a casual sense of backroom foreboding, Azor unfolds like a lost Graham Greene potboiler, albeit one with all the brio of a recognisable thriller removed. It’s the ’70s (although it could just as easily not be), and Swiss banker Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) is lured from Geneva down to Buenos Aires in pursuit of his missing partner, René Keys. Travelling in the company of his wife Inès (Stéphanie Cléau) – as he would on any overseas emissary, Yvan comes to feel uneasy about having her at his side. The men he comes to associate with would also prefer her absent from their circumspect and elliptical conversations.
Split into five chapters, this is the slowest of slow burns, written coyly – and at times maddeningly – as if it were the penultimate episode of an ongoing serial that you were supposed to have been keeping abreast of. Past events are eluded to but not expanded upon. Azor persistently feels like it is happening in a shorthand you haven’t practiced. This can make the film seem closed off, even irritatingly vague. But these same tics also pique enough curiosity to stick with it. There’s just enough carrot to go with the stick.
Chiefly one assumes we’re here to unravel the mystery of just what happened to Keys, but the man is something of a red herring (though certainly not immaterial). It’s his business and the business of those he consorted with that provides the dramatic crescendo, as Yvan follows the spectre of his partner down river, away from moral certitude.
Left to her own devices, Inès takes up chit-chat with the similarly excised wives and girlfriends that surround this junta. It is in these conversations that we glean much of what Azor is getting at, particularly during a revealing exchange in which Inès talks fondly of the games she and her husband play to talk around the truth. “Azor” is code to “keep quiet”. What’s revealed is a pre-conditioned diplomacy that calls in to question how virtuous Yvan and his wife really are. While she’s sipping cocktails and swimming in private pools, Yvan is being coerced ever-closer to the film’s beguiling end game.
The use of sound in Azor is notably strange. While visiting a large estate, Yvan and company are buffeted by winds that are left strikingly high in the mix. Ambient sounds of the peripheral world frequently threaten to upstage the action on screen; adding to the film’s enigmatic sense of danger outside of the frame. Paul Courlet’s synthetic score doesn’t so much act as an accomplice as it does an invader. Though used judiciously, his jarring blobs of sound crashland on the picture like the beginnings of a panic attack.
If Azor is cagey with exposition it is absolutely deadly when it comes to calling time. I sensed that the final shot would be its last just before the cut to black, yet still felt disarmed (and more than a little bit impressed). Fittingly for the title, so much is left unsaid. With exposition excised, this can make the piece seem a shade too cryptic, but there’s enough there for first-time director Andreas Fontana to make stern points about casual evil and the sweetness of corruption. We’re left, mainly, to wonder about the nature of Yvan. Was he ever the man we thought he was?
MUBI are adding Azor to their streaming service soon, and it has been announced as one of the titles to join there somewhat arbitrary set of physical releases here in the UK. In spite of my own cagey score given below, I’m pretty sure I’ll be revisiting this one multiple times. Difficult and frustrating it may be, but Fontana has a keenness to get under his audience’s skin. His film is like an itch that, at this time, I only want to scratch at.