Andreas Fontana on ‘Azor’: ‘The movie is about power’

The director says conversations can be used to signify power — who speaks and who is silent is an indication of that balance

Azor is a quietly unsettling film following Yvan (Fabrizio Rongione), a private banker, who arrives in Buenos Aires with his wife Ines (Stéphanie Cléau) to an atmosphere thick with sinister sophistication. It is the 1980s and in the midst of a military dictatorship; a time of uneasy alliances. Yvan should negotiate a path in this cauldron of cut-throat suspicion, looking for clues of his mysteriously missing colleague, René Keys, who is described variously as charming as well as someone not to be trusted.

Names are important for director Andreas Fontana (39), who makes an assured debut with Azor. “A name is a little thing, but it defines your history,” the Swiss director says over a video call from Geneva. “It is like a historical or social code. It was important for me to play with that. So Keys is a key to the film of course but also a reference to Colonel Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.”

There are echoes of Conrad’s 1899 novella and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) in Azor. “The structure of the novel, a journey into darkness, makes it easy to imagine and adapt into film.”

Still from ‘Azor’ 

Confronting the problem

Fontana, however, chose not to end Azor with a confrontation like the book or Apocalypse Now. “I did not want to disappoint the audience. Their imagination would always be stronger than my capacity to show. I am sure the Keys that you imagine, is much better than anything I could show. That is why I did not want to end the film with a confrontation between Yvan and Keys. The ending is not about Keys but about Yvan and his darkness.”

The reason to plunge into the closed world of private banking was because Fontana wanted to make a film about people whose work is secret. “I found the mentality of bankers, the way they think, their tools and techniques interesting. My grandfather was a private banker. He was very discreet and I did not know anything about his work. After his death, I grew interested in his world.”

Fabrizio Rongione in a still from ‘Azor’ 

Private language

The significance of the title, Fontana says, comes from an argot used by private bankers. “It means to be quiet, or careful of what you say. I find the practice of inventing words to describe a precise feeling or behaviour interesting. The language of a closed community reveals things about the people and defines them.”

Silence is a major character in Azor. “I am a minimalist director and not interested in using effects. The movie is about power. Conversations can be used to signify power. When four people are in a room, there could be one who gets all the attention because they are talking loudly. The others might be quiet either because they want to be silent or because the other person is taking too much space. Speech was my entry into this question of power. While I cannot imagine how a dictator thinks, I can understand what is going on when somebody is talking a lot and somebody is quiet because he cannot speak.”

Silent sound

While the silence in Azor is striking, there is also a lush sound to the movie. “My friend, Paul Courlet gave the music.” After he finished shooting, Fontana realised with all the film noir references, he would need a score to match the mood. “I called Paul and asked him for something he had not used. He sent me some very interesting work he did. The movie is subtle and it was important that the music was not so. I wanted to create a feeling of distance.”

The director spent time in Buenos Aires after his MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Geneva, training as a production assistant. The research, he says with a laugh, was neither easy nor difficult, but took a long time. “I am obsessive. Part of my interest in making movies is research, to be a detective and research something that not many people are interested in. If you are researching something everyone is looking at, then you are bound to look at the subject like everyone else.”

A still from ‘Azor’ 

Time and place

Azor is set in Buenos Aires in 1980 according to Fontana because it was a difficult moment in Argentinian history. “In 1980 the dictatorship began to target not only the political opposition, but also the rich and powerful. Suddenly everyone in Argentina were possible targets for repression, kidnapping and violence.”

The challenge of shooting a period piece was to ensure the film was not a museum piece, says Fontana. “While it was important to be accurate with the period, it was also important to be slightly anachronistic because what happened in 1980 in Argentina can happen today in any part of the world.”

Talking about the casting, Fontana says, the Argentinians in the movie were all non-professional actors. “They came from different backgrounds — lawyers, financiers and bakers, they came from the same milieu as the movie. The French parts were cast with professional actors. Fabrizio Rongione, who plays Yvan is not very well known and neither is Stephanie Cléau who plays his wife Inez. They are amazing actors.”

Azor is currently streaming on MUBI.

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