At the age of 83, Sergio Chamy got the opportunity of a long lifetime—the chance to go undercover to sleuth out possible skullduggery at an old folks home in his native Chile. The assignment would take all his observational skills and technical savvy.
There was only one problem.
“He was the worst spy in the world,” declares Maite Alberdi, director of The Mole Agent, a charmer of a film that documents Sergio’s sometimes inept but always earnest attempts to accomplish his secret mission. The Mole Agent, which premiered in competition at Sundance last January, is not only contending for Best Documentary at the Oscars, but is also Chile’s official selection as Best International Film for the Academy Awards.
Sergio was recruited for the espionage assignment by Rómulo Aitken, owner of a detective agency retained by a client who suspected her mother, a resident of the nursing home, was being “mistreated, robbed and beaten in there.”
“You’re going to be my eyes,” Rómulo tells Sergio in the film. “You’re going to be my ears.”
To the frustration of his demanding boss, Sergio struggles to absorb lessons in the tools of his newfound trade, like how to record video on a micro camera concealed in a pen, or how to use apps like FaceTime and WhatsApp.
“Sergio was super slow to learn,” Alberdi tells Deadline, adding there was an upside to that for her as filmmaker. “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 all the time.”
The Mole Agent is an exploration in genre unusual for nonfiction film, with music, lighting and camera techniques that might suggest the classics Laura or The Maltese Falcon.
“I wanted to make a detective film noir documentary because I thought, why are detective [stories] always the territory of fiction?” Alberdi questions. “I started to research all the detective agencies until I found Rómulo and he allowed me to work as his assistant for a while.”
When the mole job materialized, Alberdi resorted to some subterfuge herself to film inside the nursing home in El Monte, Chile.
“We told the retirement home…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,” Alberdi explains. “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.’ I was lying to them and I didn’t tell them that I am putting a spy in the place.”
Once inside the walls of the facility, Sergio begins quietly investigating the conditions. Hale and handsome, he does not fail to make a good impression on the residents, where the ratio of women to men is 10 to 1. Alberdi captures poignant scenes as the endearing and supportive Sergio gets to know people, from aging poetess Petita, to Marta, a confused woman desperate to see her presumably long-dead mother. And there’s Bertita, a devout elder who quickly develops a romantic interest in the sweet-natured senior.
Bertita, who’s well into her 80s, decides Sergio is the man to break her very lengthy celibacy. The director recalls her surprise when she filmed Bertita confessing to a staff member, “I really want to get married to him and give him my virginity.”
“It’s like if I scripted it I would never imagine a phrase like that,” the director marvels. “Really, I couldn’t believe it. The reality is more strong than fiction.”
Eventually, Sergio identifies the aforementioned Marta as a serial pilferer who has absconded with items belonging to various residents, including the client’s mother. Rómulo exults at the discovery.
“So now we’ve caught Marta,” he proclaims. “A rat who sneaks into other people’s rooms. She’s earned the title of thief.”
But these are crimes without culpability. It’s not a larcenous streak but the theft of her mind by dementia that explains Marta’s light-fingered forays. The documentary is really an exploration of aging—its frailties and loneliness—wrapped in noir.
“The reactions that I like the most is like when people say, ‘If I wasn’t laughing it was because I was crying,’” Alberdi observes. “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.”
The Mole Agent, distributed by Gravitas Ventures, is now streaming on Hulu. Though set in Chile, the director believes the documentary speaks to people everywhere.
“I think it’s a super universal film because [there are] questions about aging across all countries,” she tells Deadline. “How are my parents getting older? How do I want to [age], or where do I want to be, or with whom do I want to establish relationships when I will be older? Even if you are not in a retirement home, or if your parents or grandparents are not in a retirement home, it’s a universal topic.”