Even though reports about the rich and famous stashing away their wealth in private Swiss banks has periodically made news, rarely has one got an insider’s view of this discreet world. The feature film Azor, written and directed by debutant Andreas Fontana, takes the viewers through this cold and calculating world as Yvan De Wiel (essayed by Fabrizio Rongione), partner in a Swiss private bank, and his wife Ines look for his missing partner René Keys in Argentina.
It is hardly a surprise that Fontana, who is from Geneva and grandson of a private banker, found this world intriguing. Since his grandfather was secretive, Fontana was not familiar with his profession in spite of being close to his grandparents. “After my grandfather’s demise, I started researching private banking. I realised that it’s an interesting territory for a movie,” says the 39-year-old. This would eventually become the premise for exploring the world of high finance, aloofness of elites, and power in Azor, which means “remain quiet”.
Over the years, the Swiss private banks have played a major role in helping the wealthy and powerful from different parts of the world to evade tax. Interestingly, Fontana chose the Argentina of the 80s — a period after armed forces overthrew the government — as the backdrop for his debut movie. He spent nearly two-and-a-half years researching on the subject as well as dividing his time between Geneva and Argentina to understand this profession. “The world of private banking is very powerful with its own language, codes, and way of operating. Argentina has a complicated history. It was important to make this movie as we can talk about those things,” says Fontana, who had lived in Argentina for several years and maintains a very strong connection with the country.
Private bankers travelled to other countries where their clients were based. The idea behind the movie, too, was to travel. During our video chat, Fontana makes a reference to Joseph Conrad’s 1899-novella, Heart of Darkness. The book about a sailor’s travel into the interiors of Africa at the behest of a Belgian trading company is seen as a critique of European colonial rule in the continent. Drawing inspiration from the classic, the writer-director visualises “bankers as conquistadors”.
“A private banker’s real territory is where he goes to find his client, for the most part, abroad. The idea that a private banker could be seen as a pioneer or a colonist going to conquer an unknown world struck me as a very interesting angle,” says Fontana. The filmmaker layered this movie about “conquistadors” with the story of a missing banker and his partner’s search for him. “His disappearance showcases the evils of this highly competitive world. It’s a kind of duel but only one member of the duel is visible. I was interested in the possibility of narration and tension,” he says. While he was working on the movie, the Panama Papers scandal in 2016 blew the lid off how the rich and powerful park and move their money in and out of secret tax-havens.
What was the most challenging aspect of this story? “Most challenging task was to be accurate. It is a very touchy story. It might seem accurate for the Swiss audience but the Argentines probably won’t think so. It was tough to maintain the balance and keep the audience engaged,” says Fontana, who has already received validation from some bankers. “There were some bankers in the theatre when I showed the film at the festival in Zurich. I had a moving conversation with them. They said the world of private banking was exactly like what I have depicted in the movie. Some of them even admitted that they don’t like what they do,” says the director. He is, however, wary of the reaction in Argentina when it is shown there in cinemas in March next year. Azor had its world premiere earlier this year during Berlin International Film Festival.
Private banking thrives in a culture of confidentiality. This lends the movie its tone as many things are left unspoken. “A fascinating fact about the bankers is that they always have to guess what the clients want. They are like diplomats. They have to handle the strange wishes of the clients. When they meet someone, the important thing would always be unspoken. They are expected to understand that. This aspect of their profession gave me the scope to play with things and create tension,” says Fontana about this slow-paced mystery drama.
Even as he maintains that “there is nothing biographical” in the movie, he believes Azor concerns his generation in Switzerland. “The Swiss banks have never acknowledged their role or uttered a mea culpa. We enjoy the benefits of it. I have the impression that it is up to us, my generation, to shoulder the responsibility for the darkest hours of the 20th century. I don’t feel guilty, but I think it is absolutely necessary to encourage reflection on the subject,” he says. Next, Fontana is working on another historical fiction about diplomats and their relationship with Geneva.
Azor is currently streaming on MUBI India.