What is said in Azor matters greatly, especially since it is carefully considered before being voiced. What isn’t said is equally important – if not more. After all, this is a land in which a word or two out of place could render you vulnerable to persecution or even death.

The setting of Andreas Fontana’s Azor might be specific – Argentina in the early 1980s, in the wake of the military coup of 1976. But the movie’s skillful examination of the interplay between power and wealth applies to any country that has opportunistic elites, crony capitalists and unscrupulous financial enablers.

Azor, which is out on MUBI, follows a banker and his wife who arrive in Buenos Aires from Geneva to replace a partner who has disappeared. Yvan (Fabrizio Rongione) has a manifold mission: to find out what has happened to his bank representative Keys, in addition to retaining old clients and converting potential investors.

Over a hundred minutes, not one of them wasted, the first-time director delicately reveals the amoral nexus between private banking and the power elite.

“A banker does not ask himself moral questions when he makes a transaction, he asks himself much more pragmatic questions: what risk am I taking? Is it good for the bank in the long term? In the short term? How much do I earn?” Fontana told Scroll.in in an email interview. “The tension linked to morality is added by the spectator, not the banker’s character.”

Azor (2021). Courtesy MUBI.

Yvan must rely on his instincts and understanding of the political situation to navigate a maze of couched conversations, secrets that nobody wants to talk about, and outright lies dressed as the truth. The film’s title refers to a Geneva phrase used in banking circles that means “shut up, be careful what you say”, Fontana said.

Azor is mostly set in atmospheric interior spaces (the cinematography is by Gabriel Sandru). Over parties and lunch meetings at hotels, clubs and cavernous homes, Yvan, aided by his sharp-witted wife Ines (Stephanie Cleau), meets Keys’s associates – the men and women who command vast and possibly unaccounted-for wealth that they need to park somewhere.

Distancing devices abound through the use of long shots and mid-long shots. In close-up, Yvan discreetly watches his words and everybody around him as he works the room.

Fontana’s decision to set the movie amidst the Argentinian elite stemmed from what he described as a single image: “Two couples are sitting in a very bourgeois living room.”

Through precise dialogue and deliberate staging, Fontana and co-writer Mariano Llinas tease out the meaning of this image, which recurs in Azor.

“They are talking about very harmless, very mundane things, but you can sense that there is something behind it,” Fontana said. “There is a rotten smell in the living room. What are private bankers and their clients talking about? Who are they? How exactly do they work? What is their mentality? Private banking, like any other profession, is a vision of the world. I don’t share it at all, but it seemed to me to be good territory for a film.”

Private banking is a “personalised, almost artisanal” process, a “luxury craft for the very rich people”, Fontana added. “And private bankers know their clients intimately. It was this intimacy that interested me.”

Azor (2021). Courtesy MUBI.

But too much intimacy can tip in the direction of unwelcome disorder, as some of Yvan’s conversations reveal. The missing Keys, who looms large over Yvan’s visit, is either a valuable asset or a rogue banker. It depends who is choosing to say what.

“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,” Fontana pointed out.

The pointed silences bring out the simmering violence of the period, Fontana added. Azor is divided into chapters, each of which brings Yvan both closer and farther from the truth about Keys.

“The film seeks a distance – sometimes there is an irony, or sometimes it’s these chapters, very literary, or sometimes there is a slightly ridiculous element,” Fontana said. “I think it helps to maintain a certain distance. And the distance stimulates me. It’s less emotional, but it’s clearer.”

Andreas Fontana. Photo by Marina Palacio.

Keys might remind some viewers of Kurtz, one of the key characters in Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s acclaimed novel about Belgium’s colonisation of the Congo. An ivory trader accused of going native and being of unsound mind, Kurtz is sought out by the steamboat captain Marlow.

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now reimagines Kurtz as a messianic American soldier and the setting as the Vietnam War. Played by Marlon Brando, Kurtz emerges as a tragic consequence of America’s misguided modern-day imperial play in Southeast Asia.

“Actually, who is Keys – everything and nothing at the same time,” Fontana said. “He is only the product of the clients’ and spectators’ fantasies, as well as the product of his conflict with Yvan. He is everything that Yvan cannot be. He is the devil, and the angel, and of course, he is Colonel Kurtz, in some way.”

Among Azor’s most fascinating characters is Ines, who is an equal partner in Yvan’s quest and a valuable sounding board whose pragmatism rubs off on her husband.

Azor (2021). Courtesy MUBI.

“One day, during my research, I met the wife of a banker, and it was very interesting, because she was not saying to me the same things that the bankers I met were saying to me,” Fontana said. “She was really talking about feelings, what it was to live with a banker.”

Ines also represents the way in which women play an important role in history despite often being written out, Fontana added.

“History is full of men doing things, having victories, making conquests,” he said. “The women are just here, maybe being beautiful. I think it’s completely false. Women are the hidden characters in history. It’s just a question of representation, so now we know that we are in a better position to understand that.”

Azor (2021).