NEW YORK – “The Mole Agent” infiltrated a nursing home in Chile, and countless of hearts around the world including inside the film academy.
The moving documentary about an octogenarian hired as a rookie spy to investigate whether a client’s mother is suffering abuse in the facility is competing for an Oscar this Sunday, but director Maite Alberdi constantly doubted whether she would have enough for a movie.
“I think the main challenge was that we were walking on eggshells,” said Alberdi, who on one hand feared that her protagonist Sergio Chamy would get tired and resign, or that the home's officials would discover that he was not just another tenant or that she was not actually filming a documentary about the life of the elderly, as she had told them. The director came in a few days before Chamy, and they both pretended the whole time that they didn’t know each other.
Alberdi, 38, spoke recently with The Associated Press about the risks and challenges of the the three-and-a-half month shoot, the use of humor to address issues as sensitive as loneliness and abandonment at the dusk of life, and how the experience affected her.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
AP: How did you come about with the idea for this documentary?
ALBERDI: It came from a different place, from the intention of filming a private detective and trying to understand why people investigate, what an infiltrator does, what is the life of a mole agent like. When I saw the case of the residence, I realized that it was a place where I could talk about other topics and where I could infiltrate myself as well to film without killing the detective’s investigation. A few weeks before starting, the agent who usually worked with (chief detective) Romulo Aitken broke his hip, so that’s why Romulo put an ad in the newspaper.
AP: The film shows Romulo interviewing different candidates. How did you know that Sergio was the one for the role?
ALBERDI: It was love at first sight. Deep down I saw it, I fell in love. It was a gut thing. He was spontaneous, charming, funny, intelligent, a man who spoke about emotions — in the first interview he said that he was a widower, he told what was happening. He immediately stood out.
AP: The lady for whom he was hired ends up being a much less relevant character. Was it ever frustrating not getting the story that you were looking for, or did you notice immediately that you had a bigger one?
ALBERDI: I think I realized it in the editing. I recorded her a lot and she was also important because it was like the figure of the femme fatale, the person they were going to investigate, a character who had to be super present in terms of the intrigue. I had to completely let go of that in the editing room, because on the set I was really obsessed with filming her.
AP: In order to make this documentary, you had to lie to the nursing home officials. Did you feel guilty? When did you tell them the truth and how did they react?
ALBERDI: I went in to film the place with the idea that something bad was going on there, and somehow it gave me relief that I was doing it for a good cause, it was justified. But when I started realizing that the place was good, I had a moral burden and I was like, at what point do I tell them? In the end we decided to tell them the truth when the movie was finished. They were the first ones to see it and they were happy because they felt that it represented them very well.
AP: What were the biggest challenges you faced, beyond the moral issue?
ALBERDI: It was all very risky. Sergio arrived the first day, and when they told him he was going to be one more tenant and he saw the people, he wanted to leave — that’s not in the movie. Later when I would see him speaking in a loud voice I would say “OK, they are going to find out, they are going to discover us all.” Then, when he fought with Romulo, I thought, “This is it.” It was a constant, “I don’t know how long this man is going to last, I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to shoot.”
AP: How did you handle the situation when Sergio wanted to leave?
ALBERDI: I couldn’t handle it myself because I was inside and we had to act like we didn’t know each other, so Romulo and his children talked to him. Sergio always says that his son had coffee with him at the nursing home and assured him: “You are not going to become one of them because you came to work here; you are going to come back home and you are going to live with us.” His children were ultimately the ones that convinced him.
AP: How lucky for you...
ALBERDI: Yes, totally. Both Romulo and I had spoken with the children, because imagine how crazy for a son to have his father who just became a widow, who was a businessman his whole life, who was never a policeman, tell him: “Listen, I’m going to go to a nursing home for three months because today I became a private detective and they are going to film me as well.” I mean... Dad hit his head! (Laughs.)
AP: As moving as the story is, humor prevails. Was this important to you?
ALBERDI: It has to do with life. Life can be very hard and we may be living a tremendous grief, but you can still laugh. Nothing is black or white. Cinema has accustomed us to marked genres like drama and comedy. Here, emotions cross paths all the time because they are all crossed in real life.
AP: It is very moving to see the elderly in their day to day activities, partying, dreaming of romance, losing their memory, even dying. Is there a moment that especially marked you?
ALBERDI: There is a scene in which Sergio tells Rubira (a lady who is losing her memory and looks distressed) to cry. “Cry,” he says. Something happened to me then that I said, “OK, the movie is here and I’m living an experience.” It's something that goes beyond her pain; it is a trust and an affection that's so deep, so fast... it opened my eyes as a filmmaker. We are witnessing someone who just needs company. I think we can all relate to that.
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