Producer: Marcela Santibáñez Director: Maite Alberdi Screenplay: Maite Alberdi Cast: Sergio Chamy, Rómulo Aitken, Marta Olivares, Berta Ureta, Zoila González, Petronila Abarca and Rubira Olivares Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
No matter how the makers might define it, Maite Alberdi’s film is clearly a combination of documentary and fiction—though one could certainly note that such is true of all so-called documentaries, in which a kind of cinematic Heisenberg Principle inevitably applies, with reality always affected by the very fact that it’s being observed. “The Mole Spy” merely makes the fact abundantly clear. Whatever one’s feelings about the implicitly manipulative nature of the setup, however, Alberdi’s portrait of a nursing home in Santiago, Chile is quietly affecting.
It begins with a comic flourish as private investigator Rómulo Aitken interviews a series of octogenarians who have responded to his advertisement looking for an old man with technological savvy. They are pretty sharp guys, wondering how in an ageist era a job might specifically require the sort of person usually dismissed out of court by recruiters, but a good deal of fun is inspired by their general inability even to turn on a smart phone.
Rómulo eventually settles on Sergio Chamy, a soft-spoken recent widower whose married daughter expresses some concern that the job would require her father to become a resident of the San Francisco nursing home for a few months. His assignment there would be to investigate whether the suspicions of his client—a woman worried that her mother Sonia, a resident there, is being abused and robbed by the staff—are justified. After gaining Rómulo’s assurance that she and her family could visit Sergio, however, she agrees—though whether she could have vetoed the plan is uncertain, since Sergio insists that he decides what to do for himself.
Another part of Rómulo’s plan (his client must be willing to shell out plenty of dough) is to have convinced the nursing home administration to allow a documentary camera crew free run of the facility in order to record Sergio’s experiences as a new resident. (The film reveals this elliptically, during the sequence in which Rómulo is instructing Sergio in the use of secret cameras in his pen and eyeglasses, as well as his phone; in a shot from Sergio’s perspective, we see the crew filming the scene. Inattentive viewers might miss the reveal altogether and wonder whether the whole film is fictional, though there’s a later scene in which two residents note that they’re being filmed and recorded.)) In any event, this allows the film to cover Sergio’s time at the home from the very beginning, as he, his daughter and Rómulo, posing as his grandson, look over the place at the time of admission.
Then Sergio begins his work as a spy, his initial mission to identify Sonia in a community composed almost entirely of elderly women, all of whom, he remarks, look pretty much alike to him. He does finally locate her by asking woman after woman their names—sometimes simply by cautiously entering their rooms—and sends daily reports to Rómulo about his observations, though he can’t remember the codes the detective has taught him.
But most of the film simply records how Sergio becomes a valued member of the community simply by reason of his gentlemanly ways and his willingness to converse with the lonely women, many of whom rarely, if ever, get visitors. He befriends Marta, a sometimes thief who, though very old, complains that her mother never visits (she takes phone calls from a nurse pretending to be the deceased woman) and begs the porter daily to be let outside. He consoles Rubira, a sad and forgetful woman, by getting her photographs of her children. He expresses admiration for another’s poetry, and accompanies her to the chapel, where she talks to the statues. He humors Berta, who sees him as a handsome suitor by reminding her that his wife has just died and he’s not ready to marry again. And those are only some of the residents whose empty existences he partially fills. And
There is grief here—one resident has to be taken in to the hospital, and a funeral follows—and the encounters with Rubira are deeply moving. There are also moments of joy, like a festive anniversary celebration. And by the close what started as a satire of spy movies has been transformed into a genuinely poignant commentary on growing old and feeling abandoned, in which what is real and what fabricated hardly matters. Sergio’s final report to Rómulo, in which he absolves the home of wrongdoing and castigates his employer’s target for not visiting her mother, and his promise to come back and see his friends as he departs for home (explaining his decision to leave on the basis of family responsibilities) are touching without becoming maudlin.
“The Mole Agent” is nicely shot by Pablo Valdés and edited skillfully by Carolina Siraqyan. But the technique is merely functional. What you will remember are the characters and, one hopes, the message.