‘Azor’ turns the couch movie into a quiet horror story

In the sly new financial film “Azor,” a Swiss banker named Yvan de Wiel visits Argentina in 1980 on business, but the military dictatorship’s “dirty war” against its political opponents continues to slip around him. In an opening scene, De Wiel silently watches as soldiers stop two young men in the street. After the camera drops and returns, only one young man remains, his partner joins the thousands of Argentine missing. “You don’t have to worry”, reassures the driver of the banker De Wiel; they are in a Swiss embassy vehicle, shrouded in diplomatic and moral immunity.

A soldier waves the car through and De Wiel – whose own Swiss partner is also inexplicably missing – reassures his nervous, ultra-rich Argentine clients that their money and their secrets are safe. But unlike many films about the impunity of the 1%, the elite of “Azor” are housebound, paranoid and afraid to speak the truth above the volume of a whisper. Their polite Swiss banker can’t protect them from a gangster government kidnapping their racehorses and their left-wing heirs. “They chase us like rabbits”, a matriarch tells De Wiel at the first moment when she is sure that she will not be bugged.

While De Wiel frequents the lounges, swimming pools and exclusive clubs of the wealthy, the violence of the nation remains out of the picture, but the fear never leaves the frame. Not least because it’s unclear where a banker’s loyalties might lie when the military suddenly has an “El Dorado” of seized assets that only someone in French handcuffs and a Swiss passport can easily liquidate. The film’s title is a bank code word for “be still, careful what you say”, and the story prefers the horrors of the unsaid.

American viewers will find that “Azor” — Swiss director Andreas Fontana’s first full-length film, now streamed on Mubi — is a minimalist departure from American high-finance films, which can’t help but explain themselves, usually loudly. In Oliver Stone’s 1987 “Wall Street,” financier Gordon Gekko’s iconic “greed is good” speech summed up the intellectual stature of a decade of deregulation, junk bonds, leveraged buybacks, and organized labor withdrawals. Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) drinks champagne from the same Reagan-era flute. “I want you to solve your problems by getting rich,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort urges a crowd of ecstatic merchants.

In the 2011 ‘Margin Call’ that marks the start of the 2008 financial crisis, a mid-market trader played by Paul Bettany brazenly berates the John Q. Publics who had been happy with the toxic floating-rate mortgages of Wall Street when it’s bigger houses and thicker 401(k) is good for the little guy. “They want what we have to offer them, but they also want to play innocently and pretend they have no idea where it came from,” he complains from his convertible. If the anti-heroes are in charge, they get to give the speeches.

More recent Hollywood treatments of the financial world have become didactic to the point of agitprop, coinciding with a realignment of American politics in which Republicans have become more trade protectionist and youth more socialist. To dramatize the planet’s absurdly complex 2008 financial crisis for his 2015 film “The Big Short,” Adam McKay cast Margot Robbie to sit in a bubble bath, drink champagne, and break the fourth wall to explain mortgage-backed securities directly to viewers. Steven Soderbergh’s 2019 film “The Laundromat” lent the same device to Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman, who wore flashy tuxedos as they showed the public the secrets of global offshore banking. It’s art about capital desperately hoping you get the message.

“Azor” skips the narrative tricks and sticks to the less macho world of Swiss private banking, where families often run banks that are passed down from generation to generation. “It’s a very specific environment, quite powerful and discreet,” says Fontana. Fontana’s grandfather had been a banker, and Fontana was fascinated by a posthumous diary entry of a visit to Argentina in 1980, which never mentioned the political situation ‘played off the screen of the notebook’. (There was mention of the American election of Ronald Reagan as president.)

A man in black and white stands in a lit room.

Similarly, Fontana decided that the script — which, he emphasizes, is not biographical — “must show only the very bare essentials, and everything else, for the audience to imagine.” He strove to be sociologically “accurate” with the environment, casting the Argentine characters in the film with non-professional actors from the real elite of the country. “The casting director called me the snake charmer,” Fontana says of the recruiting process. “If I was a journalist, I’m sure they wouldn’t have worked on this project.”

The film’s protagonist, De Wiel, played by actor Fabrizio Rongione, has inherited a bank and a large house in Geneva from his father, but De Wiel seems to lack the charm, awareness and cunning of his missing partner Keys, who disappeared. shortly after researching a potential client nicknamed “Lázaro”. While the bank is De Wiel’s estate, it is his wife, Inès (played by Stéphanie Cléau), who is the real mastermind of the operation. Their marriage, and the imbalances between men and women, are the film’s other major underground conflict.

Inès can read a room better than her husband, can put people at ease and therefore has to constantly explain to him what is really going on. She knows which coats her husband should wear to make his shoulders look more imposing. “My husband and I are one and the same person – him,” Inès confides to a female client. After being blocked from attending a racetrack meeting because of her gender and her husband meets and loses a client, she becomes annoyed at his ineffectiveness. “Your father was right,” she tells him. “Fear makes you mediocre.”

As with many financial films, “Azor” is ultimately more of a success story than a hero’s journey. De Wiel leaves the estates and hotel pools where he feels comfortable for a journey into the wilderness, where even his fellow Swiss merchants were afraid to go. “The war is won at the front,” a sinister client, a pro-junta priest with a penchant for foreign currency speculation, recalls De Wiel before the journey. The film’s conclusion tells an even bleaker story about Swiss private financing than most American films about Wall Street.

After an interview with The Times for this story, Fontana reflected on his research process in a follow-up email. “You should know that during my research I met about ten private bankers, and one of them committed suicide and the other disappeared, nobody knows what happened to him,” Fontana said. “It’s an environment without oxygen, even without love, I’d say.” In Geneva, Fontana says, there is a local saying “that the children of bankers, if they are not bankers themselves, are artists or junkies.” He adds, “It’s a terrible expression.”

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Ramee S

Ramee S, Senior Editor, Contact:

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