Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Slyly stings the social links between Swiss banks and Argentina’s corrupt Dirty War

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Andreas Fontana
Written by Andreas Fontana, in collaboration with Mariano Llinas
Produced by Eugenia Mumenthaler and David Epiney
Switzerland/France/Argentina. 100 mins. Not Rated
In French and Spanish with English subtitles
With: Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, Carmen Iriondo, Juan Trench, Ignacio Vila, Pablo Torre, Elli Medeiros, Gilles Privat, Alexandre Trocki, Agustina Muñoz, Juan Pablo Gerreto, and Yvain Julliard
Mubi release: September 10, 2021 in art house theaters in NYC; September 17 in Los Angeles; September 24 in Albuquerque, NM, Baltimore, MD; Chapel Hill, NC, Chicago, IL, Columbus, OH, Coral Gables, FL, Damariscotta, ME, Iowa City, IA, Ithaca, NY, Philadelphia, PA, Scottsdale, AZ, Winston-Salem, NC; October 1 in Boise, ID, Nashville, TN, Oklahoma City, OK, Pelham, NY, Pleasantville, NY, Portland, OR, and Silver Springs, MD,; October 8 in Daytona Beach, FL; October 22 in Wilmington, DE

(Seen at 2021 New Directors/New Films of Film at Lincoln Center/MoMA)

The dictatorship of the military junta that controlled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 is usually portrayed in films by its brutal violence against the opposition. In a pointed social and political criticism, Andreas Fontana, in his debut feature, slyly stings the elites that benefited by showing them with the personification of their Swiss bank accounts.

The upper crust is seen through the eyes of this outsider over five chapters. Private banker Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) arrives in Buenos Aires from Geneva into the Swiss Embassy’s car for “The Camel’s Tour”. A scion of a family-founded financial institution (like Fontana’s grandfather), he is replacing the mysteriously missing colleague Rene Keys. (Mentions of other people and property that are also gone pepper conversations throughout.)

Yvan is accompanied by his elegant, ambitious wife Ines (Stéphanie Cléau). She usefully has a cousin who gets them VIP invites. One immediately thinks of Lady MacBeth. Between calls back to the bank for stock deals, he arranges formal meetings with an ambassador, and she socializes with a celebrity.

On “The Visits” to private villas and resorts, each client describes Keys with words like “depraved”, “very charming”, “despicable manipulator”, “dangerous”, and that he “lost his mind”. One society dame (deliciously played by Elli Medeiros) reminisces at length on accompanying him to Switzerland and his tricks to get through customs. The more we hear about Keys, the more he seems like Orson Welles as “Harry Lime” in Carol Reed’s Graham Greene-written noir The Third Man (1949). While Yvan tries to assure them he has a “different style” to provide “the same services”, he discovers Keys’ hidden list with a secret client.

In “A Duel”, the claustrophobic, upper class atmosphere of an old restricted club is exquisitely re-created because Fontana was able to get permission to film in one, with many of its members participating. It’s the perfect environment for Yvan to be told there are three pillars of their society: “the Army, the Church, and us”. Each pillar welcomes Yvan in, and updates their accounts with the bank. Including Monsignor Tatoski (a chilling Pablo Torre Nilson), based on a real Archbishop who collaborated with the junta.

By “The Gala”, Yves and Ines are a canny team, sizing up the clients and their wives to learn the class slang, including the title. There’s yet another code word that leads into the last disquieting chapter. “Lazaro” takes Yves into the literal Heart of Darkness of corruption. Fontana deeply researched the complicity of Swiss banks in profiting from the thousands who the junta “disappeared”, recalling their infamous handling of Nazi gold.

Benjamín Naishtat’s Rojo (2018) similarly, creepily showed how the middle class in Argentina welcomed and gained through the dictatorship. The rise again of right-wing, nationalistic governments makes this sophisticated thriller an ominous warning about history repeating itself.

September 20, 2021

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
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My reviews have appeared on: Film-Forward; FF2 Media; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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