Andreas Fontana’s impressive debut feature takes us into the murky world of private banking and makes matters even murkier by portraying the financial wheeling and dealing of his protagonist with a host of dodgy characters in 1970s Argentina. The military dictatorship is taking people off the streets, people are disappearing, and the Argentine Catholic Church has priests who are ardent followers of the stock exchange and are willing to see any potential threat to their wealth eradicated.

This has all the makings of a racy political thriller, but Fontana prefers to play it cool. His focus is on Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), a Swiss banker from a long line of Swiss bankers. He is quietly and elegantly handsome and he has brought his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau) along for the trip, a journey intended to placate the bank’s clients and keep them on after his partner, the ‘dissolute’ and ‘depraved’ René Keys, goes AWOL. It would seem that despite the pejorative terms thrown at Keys, all who met him were charmed. It is Yvan’s task to initiate his own charm offensive, which is often seen to be lacking. He is too safe, too sensible, like a boring sibling picking up the pieces while living in the shadow of his handsome profligate brother.

Yvan’s wife is his accomplice in everything: she chooses what he should wear and how to behave. She knows when to step in and when to make herself scarce. And she knows the secret codes of the banking fraternity. She wheedles out information from the clients and their spouses as they schmooze at racecourses, on ranches and in private pools. In fact, Inés is often depicted in water, a woman who is happy diving into any environment and perhaps a little too comfortable swimming with sharks.

azorDespite the lack of any immediate danger to his protagonist, Fontana has created an ambience heavy with an invisible menace. There are scenes of people being stopped and searched, and even the neutral Swiss banker endures encounters with the new authorities. The devastating story of the client’s missing daughter shows that not even the powerful and rich are immune to danger, while the frankly terrifying priest all contribute to instilling a sense of foreboding, heightened when Yvan takes a trip that looks like something from The Heart of Darkness. It is on this journey that Yvan will decide just how dark his heart is and how far he is prepared to go to shake off the unflattering comparisons with his depraved and absent partner.

All this looming darkness is countered by a palette that recalls 1970s Super-8 holiday movies. Threatening conversations take place at the races or over drinks in private clubs, horror stories are told on rides through verdant countryside, and fears are voiced in glittering pools. Like Yvan, on the surface everything looks cool, calm and unperturbed, but the underlying darkness seeps out in every scene.

Some viewers might be disappointed at the lack of fast-paced action or thrills, but this is a slow-burning and intelligent look at how bankers like Yvan help finance some of the deadliest powers in the world. And it shows us that depravity comes in many guises, not just in the wild partying antics of Keys but in the subtle manners of Yvan and those who profited from the disappearance of so many in Argentina’s darkest hour.