Wednesday 13 October 2021

Azor (Andreas Fontana, 2021)

Belgian actor Fabrizio Rongione is synonymous with the work of the Dardenne brothers, and while the same could also be said of Rongione's fellow Brusselian Jérémie Renier—admittedly a much higher profile actor—it's actually Rongione who's currently in the lead when it comes to appearances for the Dardennes, with the scoreline currently standing at 6–5.  Outside of his work with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Rongione has proved to be a difficult actor to cast correctly, although this hasn't prevented him from carving out a steady career on both stage and screen.  Andreas Fontana's debut feature Azor hands Rongione a juicy leading role, and the actor responds with an excellent performance, one that will hopefully give casting directors some valuable guidance as they look to place Rongione in future projects.

As with another LFF 2021 title, Prayers for the Stolen, Azor plunges the viewer into a Latin America where both corruption and forced disappearances are commonplace.  The backdrop for Azor is Argentina at the dawn of the 1980s, a time when the country's Dirty War was still raging.  Into this volatile situation arrives Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Rongione) and his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau), and while these Europeans appear to have a superficial understanding of what is going in the country, we get the sense that no outsider can truly appreciate what is unfolding through this period of political instability.  Given his profession, you won't be surprised to learn that Yvan is in Argentina for business reasons—and while you may well be thinking that no foreigner in the right mind would consider holidaying in Argentina under the junta, Azor has a languorous side to it, which is symbolised by a scene in which seemingly carefree citizens (and Inés) enjoy apéritifs as they lounge around a sun-kissed pool.    

Although Azor is quite clearly taking place in a country firmly in the grip of fear, it contains few if any overt examples of the terror acts that led to tens of thousands of people vanishing without trace.  This omission is presumably because Yvan and Inés are mixing in rarified circles that are ring-fenced from the horrors inflicted on so many ordinary Argentinians.  Yet this illusion of calm creates a palpable sense of unease, as the violence always seems to be left just outside of the frame.  It's clear that the diplomatic Yvan sees all of this in very simple terms: he's there to do his job, not stir the pot.  That said, there is the not insignificant matter of Yvan's partner and predecessor, René Keys, who has mysteriously disappeared, and Yvan struggles to get any leads from those he speaks to, although a few offer their opinions on the missing banker; according to one character, "Keys has completely lost his mind."  Yvan is later seen heading upriver on a boat, and you half expect someone to declare, "Mistah Keys—he dead."   

Resting somewhere between Franz Kafka and Joseph Conrad, Azor is a film about violence that refuses to show violence.  There are a couple of occasions when we're concerned for Yvan's safety, but on the whole there's a sense that the banker is protected by both his status and his general reluctance to express political opinions—that said, he employs an increasingly risky strategy in persisting with the investigation of Keys' disappearance.  As with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Azor drops a European protagonist into an unfamiliar milieu that he cannot fully get to grips with, and in turn director Fontana shifts this perspective on to the viewer, for whom the film frequently remains an elusive, opaque effort.  Which is not to say that Azor isn't worthwhile; on the contrary, it's an immaculate work that expertly sustains its oppressive mood.  Rongione has never been better, and he's ably backed up by Cléau, who was so good in Mathieu Amalric's The Blue Room.  The Dirty War casts a long shadow over the Argentina of today, and Azor—which screens today and tomorrow at the London Film Festival—admirably succeeds in conveying the fraught atmosphere of a terrorised, traumatised country.

Darren Arnold

Images: Be For Films