Maite Alberdi's film tells story of elderly man hired to go undercover at Chilean retirement home
This year's Academy Awards gave hope to international filmmakers -- that subtitles are not disqualifying when it comes to Oscar recognition. The Korean-language Parasite won Best Picture, and four of the five Oscar-nominated feature documentaries were not in English -- even the winning doc American Factory is partly in Chinese. Three of the five nominated short documentaries were subtitled too.
Those kind of stats are encouraging to Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi, a Motion Picture Academy member whose film The Mole Agent just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
"I was surprised the Oscar nominees [recognized] four foreign language films... That is not usual," Alberdi told Nonfictionfilm.com at Sundance. "I think it's my first time in my career that I really feel, okay, the American market can be interested in other kinds of documentaries... I really feel that [starting] two years ago it's more open to other styles, to other languages."
The language of The Mole Agent is Spanish, the style of filmmaking unique. From the opening frames, Alberdi's documentary announces itself as something different in the nonfiction realm.
"I wanted to make a detective film noir documentary because I thought why are detective [stories] always the territory of fiction?" Alberdi explains.
To accomplish that goal the director went in search of a private eye in her native Chile, someone who could grant her access to noir-ish ops.
"I started to research all the detective agencies until I found [agency owner] Romulo and he allowed me to work as his assistant for awhile," Alberdi comments. "Working as his assistant I saw different mole cases... so I asked him if a new client arrived if I could enter with him on that research."
The stakes of The Mole Agent are not quite those of The Maltese Falcon or The Third Man, where murder and venal motives are in play. Part of the considerable charm of the film is the contrast between the noir tone and the low key investigation at hand -- a possible theft case at a retirement home. Is someone pilfering items from the room of elderly resident Sonia, or otherwise mistreating her? Sonia's daughter wants to find out.
The daughter engaged the services of Romulo, whose firm had experience looking into cases involving retirement communities. Romulo's first step was to take out a newspaper ad seeking the services of an elderly man to do the snooping. Alberdi filmed as eager candidates showed up to apply; she took note of one of them in particular.
"Thirty old people arrived at the office and when I saw Sergio I was completely in love with him and I tried to convince the detective that he was the one [to go undercover]," the director recalls. "Of course, he was the worst spy in the world but for me he was a gentlemen that I realized was good for the film."
Romulo eventually agreed that Sergio was the right man for the job. Then began a process of instructing the 84-year-old widower in the use of technology to uncover what was going on at the retirement facility, tasks like operating a cell phone and using eyeglasses mounted with a mini-camera.
"Sergio was super slow to learn," Alberdi recalls, but she adds there was an upside to that. "We had the opportunity to move the camera in the perfect way because they spent one day trying to learn how to use the cell phone. So I have time to move the camera to get the perfect shot."
Romulo was not exactly the most understanding of instructors, insistently drumming lessons into his tutee.
"[Romulo] doesn't have any emotional intelligence, I think. He's super rude," Alberdi notes. "He wants his goal and anything that is outside of his goal he is not [patient.]"
Once sufficiently trained, Sergio was ready to infiltrate the retirement community. Alberdi had developed a ruse of her own to gain access to the home so she could record the mole's activities.
"We entered the retirement home [beforehand] and we told them that we want to make a film about old age and about everything that can happen inside that place -- the good things and the bad things -- and they signed a super open release that we can shoot everything," Alberdi says. "My previous films are [set] in retirement homes with elderly characters so they said, 'Okay, we love those films. We want to allow her to do this film.' I was lying to them and I didn't tell them that I am putting a spy in the place."
Sergio may not be the most adept of gumshoes, but for viewers that turns out to be a plus. The Mole Agent becomes a poignant exploration of old age as the gentle and friendly Sergio puts his energy into getting to know the many residents of the place instead of drilling down on his mission. Among the people he befriends is a bedridden woman named Petita who writes lovely poetry, and another woman named Berta, who takes a shine to Sergio. Berta is perhaps most accurately described -- and this is not meant as ridicule -- as the 80-year-old virgin.
Alberdi recalls Berta admitting, "'I really want to get married to him and give him my virginity.' Really, I couldn't believe it. The reality is more strong than fiction because it's surprising."
Does Sergio figure out whether Sonia is truly the victim of theft or mistreatment? Do Berta and Sergio hook up? Better I leave it to viewers to see how those mysteries are resolved. If sales agent Submarine is successful with negotiations, a distributor will bring the film to the U.S. and other territories. The Mole Agent will definitely be seen in a number of countries, the director assures Nonfictionfilm.com.
"It's going to theatrical in Chile in June," Alberdi reveals. "It's a co-production between five countries and of course we're going to have distribution in those countries -- Spain, the Netherlands, German, Chile and we are looking for distribution in the U.S."
In the meantime, Alberdi is warmed by the reaction at Sundance, where her film earned rave reviews from critics and moviegoers.
"The reactions that I like the most [are] when people say, 'If I wasn't laughing it was because I was crying,'" Alberdi comments. "It's a travel of emotion that I saw in the audience when we were screening the film and that's super good for me. That's the best reaction, I think."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.