‘The Mole Agent’ competes for the Oscars

Published March 23, 2021, 11:16 AM

by Rica Arevalo

The ‘worst’ spy agent penetrates Chile’s retirement home 

The worst “spy” in history is the subject of a film noir documentary entitled, “The Mole Agent,” directed by filmmaker Maite Alberdi.  The 90-minute documentary begins with a job search for a retired elderly male aged 80 to 90 years old who is independent, discreet, and tech-savvy. The goal is to be an intelligence agent, ala James Bond, and check into a nursing home for three months. 

Octogenarian Sergio Chamy is hired by Rómulo Aitken to be the eyes and ears of the investigator at the San Francisco Retirement Home. The mission is to keep an eye on a female resident, whose daughter believes is being mistreated, robbed, and beaten.  

Sergio tries to befriend everyone.  He poorly records, sometimes showing no proof of the “robbery,” and does not take facts seriously.  

But he strongly voices his opinions as his “report.” “Residents feel lonely, they aren’t being visited, and some have been abandoned,” he reads. “Loneliness is the worst thing about this place.”  

The Mole Agent is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2021 Academy Awards. We got an invite from the Scottish Documentary Institute to attend a documentary masterclass with Maite via Zoom two weeks ago.   

Director Maite Alberdi

“I want to understand why the people hire private detectives.  And why the private detective agencies increased,” she says.

The Chilean director met Rómulo and the investigator allowed her to be his assistant to see and experience the different cases of moles.

When she saw Sergio, she immediately fell in love with him. “He was funny, connected, intelligent,” recalls the audiovisual director of the Pontificial Catholic University of Chile.

“He cries in the documentary, speaking about his wife.  For me, I was raised in a culture that all men do not cry.  It was like, this was special.,” she added.   

The fly-on-the-wall approach worked well with the filmmaker and her small crew visiting the retirement home for four months and getting 300 hours of footage.  

“As a spy, he is not the best candidate but he is the funniest,” confesses the 38-year-old director.

An ethical concern came for Maite when she had to disclose the truth to the retirement home that they were shooting a “mole.” “We invited them to see the film and said to them we lied to you,” she said. The caregivers never suspected anything. “They loved the film, they cried, they laughed, and they really felt the film represented them in a super good way,” she shares.  “It was a relief for me!” The retirement home is now promoting the film.

An ethical concern came for the filmmaker Maite Alberdi when she had to disclose the truth to the retirement home that they were shooting a ‘mole.’ ‘We invited them to see the film and said to them we lied to you,’ she said.

She advises first-time filmmakers to defend their voice, their own point of view and explain their own vision. “Try to find your own voice and to be honest.  Find that space,” she says.

There are many poignant moments in the documentary. “All that is happening there is true. All the characters did that,” she says. “It is not staged.” 

In the film, Sergio commits to the people of the care home, not to the mission. “The target needs special care, and we don’t know whether the client can provide it,” he reiterates. “I don’t understand the point of doing this investigation. The client should do it herself, she’s her mother.”  

The target Sonia (mother) quietly states in the end, “Everything will be all right.  In this life, everything has a solution.” One of Sergio’s friends, Marta Olivares, who has dementia, hopes: “Maybe my mom will come…”

The mole agent and the director

The last scene is the most powerful. Sergio leaves the retirement home with Rómulo, never looking back.  

After watching this documentary, people will no doubt start connecting again with their grandparents and parents. Indeed, love for family is universal.