‘The Mole Agent’ goes in lookup of elder abuse but finds a charming family portrait of aging

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As is often the case within documentary filmmaking, writer-director Maite Alberdi didn’t quite understand what she would uncover when she started shooting “The Mole Agent. ” What began as a covert investigation into possible elder neglect at a nursing home outside Santiago, Chile, evolved into a comfortable, wistful, often amusing family portrait of growing old — including such issues as navigating loneliness, mental and bodily diminution, friendship and even the prospect of love.

The film follows then-83-year-old Sergio Chamy, a brilliant, dapper and compassionate widower hired by a gruff investigator, Romulo Aitken, to go undercover in the senior facility. The master plan: Chamy is to pose as being a new resident and, as soon as moved in, search for indications of the mistreatment alleged simply by Aitken’s client, the daughter of one of the nursing home’s longtime occupants. Suffice to state, surprises abound.

The Envelope spoke towards the open, enthusiastic Alberdi through Zoom from her house in Santiago, about the making of “The Mole Real estate agent, ” which has been nominated for an Academy Award.

Congratulations on your own Oscar nomination! How do you feel when you first heard about it?

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I was surprised. We did not expect this. It was amazing!

As a documentary, the particular film feels more observational than investigatory or revealing. How did you choose tips on how to shape the narrative?

Our [initial] goal has been to construct a kind of film noir or thriller-like story completely focused on the case, the indications and how and what Sergio uncovered. The client was also, for me, an essential character: the sort of femme fatale who sets the particular mission into motion.

In the end, though, all of us constructed the narrative completely in editing, because I had formed no control of that component of it during filming. For example , I knew what Romulo was going to ask of Sergio, but I didn’t know how Sergio was going to react [to his marching orders] or exactly how he was going to function once he was living within the retirement home. Also, while shooting, I couldn’t give Sergio any instructions, since i have had to treat him as though we didn’t know one another — like he was just another resident.

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Only when Sergio started to commit to his mission could I see how the narrative may change from what I had initially envisioned. We also had to take out any focus on the customer, because it was super-difficult to obtain the access to shoot her.

Director Maite Alberdi of “The Mole Agent"

Director Maite Alberdi of “The Mole Agent, ” took pictures of in the L. A. Times Studio at the Sundance Movie Festival on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020 in Park City, Utah.

(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Why do you think the nursing home allowed you into film to begin with? It seemed like you had full access.

We visited the retirement home . and said that we wanted to make a film about old age and how people were living presently there. They watched another movie I’d made about a retirement home [the 2016 documentary short “I’m Not From Here”] and loved it, so they opened the doors to us because they assumed we were likely to do something similar. In the end, the film is not so distinct from the one we told all of them we were making at the start.

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What was the nursing home’s reaction when they learned the truth about why you were there?

When the movie was finished, we decided to show it to them and tell the truth. They were our first audience — also it was great. They loved the film and felt that it represented them so well that now they’re promoting it. It was a relief.

The 83-year-old spy Sergio Chamy in a scene from "The Mole Agent" by Chilean director Maite Alberdi.

The 83-year-old secret agent Sergio Chamy in a scene from “The Mole Agent” by Chilean director Maite Alberdi.

(Gravitas Ventures)

And they also didn’t feel deceived?

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No … [though] I don’t know how they never suspected.

Did you ever think that if the location really did have something to hide they wouldn’t have got let you film there to start?

Constantly. But it was a good sign when they allowed us in order to enter. At the same time you could state, “Well, if you put the camera on a place [like that], they’re going to end up being on their best behavior. ” But they can’t be “acting” for four months. [Filming began two weeks before Sergio arrived.] I was not there all the time; I photo five days a week, through noon to 8 s. m. But Sergio was living there for three weeks and didn’t see something bad either. If this individual did, he would have mentioned so , but he cherished it there.

With its engaging major character, fish-out-of-water setup and potential mystery elements, the film would seem like an organic to be remade as a story feature. Any plans for your?

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Actually, we have been closing in on an offer to do just that. In the beginning, I desired to develop it myself. But then I realized I’m as well close to my film and that, if I did remake it, I would probably do it in the same manner. I needed to “set it free” so it could become a creation different from mine.