Documentary meets gumshoe in Chilean Maite Alberdi’s The Mole Agent which world premiered at Sundance 2020 and premieres digitally in North America September 1, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures. The director talks to BDE.
The premise may seem oddball, that of planting an octogenarian spy into a retirement care home. But apparently it is a common request made to private detective agencies, at least in Chile. And at the end of the day, there is no mole quite like Sergio. Diligent and professional, but also gentlemanly and kind, he is a man who comes to recognise the real dilemma that plagues the elderly residents of care homes – loneliness and neglect.
Sergio was one of many respondees (director Alberdi suggests 50 or so) to a small ad in a newspaper seeking an operative aged 80-90 years with computer literacy skills. The ad was placed by private detective Romulo who had been approached by the daughter of a care home resident whom she suspects is being maltreated.
Sergio must enter the home as a pretend resident and start his investigation, using James Bond gadgetry such as a camera pen and glasses also calibrated to record every move. Meanwhile, in order to keep track of Sergio’s espionage activities, director Maite Alberdi had made an agreement with the home, ostensibly to shoot a documentary about old age. The home had no idea of her actual intentions.
Little by little Sergio makes progress. He establishes contact with the target, Sonja, but also with all of the other residents with whom he soon gains high approval and popularity ratings, and is even the object of romantic intentions. In return, he offers kindness, advice and support to his new friends and to the institution’s hard-working staff, to the extent that he begins to question the validity of the claims made against the care home…
“For me, at the beginning, the film was completely about the case,” admits director Alberdi. “But at some point I started to realise that it is not about a private detective, more about what is happening in those kinds of places.” Nevertheless her application of generic tropes (Marlowesque titles, jaunty soundtrack, dramatic camera angles etc), allows for ease of access to what, eventually, becomes a serious examination of a difficult subject. “A film about old people abandoned or alone in a home – it’s not attractive.”
Nevertheless, the film offers up a fascinating (and attractive) cast of characters, such as the house proud Berta who develops a major league crush on Sergio, the forgetful and lachrymose Rubira whom Sergio spends much time comforting, the poet Pertita, the kleptomaniac Marta who believes her mother is still alive, and of course target Sonja, who refuses to allow anybody to come close, whether physically or emotionally.
“I really didn’t expect that he was going to be open to establish new relationships at 83-years old,” says Alberdi of Sergio who, on the face of it, is so much fitter and sharper than his fellow residents. But love and friendship is a two-way thing and Sergio is a man with a well of sympathy and compassion, and prone to tears himself. “For me that was surprising and it was a gift, and I feel is the gift of the film also. I learned a lot about his capacity to listen.”
Alberdi confesses that she was nervous about the care home’s eventual reaction to the film. After all, they knew nothing about the detective investigation, assuming instead that she was making a film about old age. “It was a pain in my stomach until I showed the film to them before Sundance,” she stresses.
In the end, the staff at the agency loved it. “They say that it is completely the things that they deal with. They say that the film reflects their daily problems,” she says. “It’s a relief for me because I felt bad until that day. I didn’t know if I would continue living with this film. with myself, if they [didn’t] like it.”
Inevitably in a film about ageing and the elderly, death is a subject that must be broached, and this film is no different. The funeral of a core resident is presented, and the end credits suggest that another died after shooting.
How does Alberdi cope personally with the death of people whom she has come to know and whose later lives she has chronicled? (Her 2019 short doc I’m Not From Here and La Once  also featured central characters of advancing years.)
“My life is super monotonous and the way to live new experiences is to meet these new characters, and I spend really a lot of time with them,” she responds. “In all my previous films I have lost, during the process, the main characters – or after I have stopped shooting – so they are a loss [in] my life in the end, and it is really painful for me.”
“The talent as a director is to try to separate what is my emotion with the characters and the emotion I have to build for the audience… As I enjoy more my life with them I also suffer more, because I have to experience [their passing],” Alberdi ends.
A Micromundo Production in co-Production with Motto Pictures, Sutor Kolonko, Volya Films, Malvalanda