Chile scored twice at this year’s Oscars derby with Maite Alberdi’s genre-bending documentary “The Mole Agent.” For a Chilean film to be shortlisted for both the International Feature Film and Documentary categories is unprecedented. That it is by a female director – only the second time in Chile’s history a film by a woman was submitted – is also cause for celebration.
“The Mole Agent” follows octogenarian Sergio as he is outfitted with James Bond-type gadgets to spy on a possible case of abuse at a nursing home. While perfectly sound of body and mind himself, he feigns to be just one of the new residents in the female-dominated center as a film crew led by Alberdi pretends to be making a documentary about the center.
As Sergio fends off the advances of one, discovers the kleptomaniac tendencies of another and offers a sympathetic ear to the others, he draws some unsavory conclusions about society’s attitude towards its elders and in turn, about the people who hired him. “The Mole Agent” is now streaming on Hulu in the U.S. and Netflix in Latin America.
Variety held a Zoom call with Alberdi in Chile and director-producer Pablo Larrain (“Jackie,” “A Fantastic Woman”), who is currently helming Princess Diana drama “Spencer” with Kristen Stewart in Germany.
This film is not really about a retirement home, but rather social dynamics and how society treats people, especially women. Pablo, could you talk about this because your films often talk about social malaise….
Larrain: I think the movie represents a very deep and complicated social dilemma that is also related, I guess, to a universal fear: How do we deal with the end of our own life? There is nothing more human than to think about your own old age and death. If you go there, the subject can be very dark, can be sort of sad and can smell like a funeral. But this movie smells like a celebration of life.
The first time I saw a cut, what stayed with me was the incredible capacity that Maite has to bring tenderness and humanity to a subject that can be very dark. It’s a very complex movie that has certain sense of dark humor. It’s a very honest portrait of what could be considered the leftovers of society.
One of the complexities of the film is that the central character in what is set up as a film noir narrative rebels, comes to see his own undercover work in a new light….
Larrain: The hero of film noir is usually someone who has a very specific mission who eventually, by discovering and working on that mission, comes to understand more about himself than the mission he has been chasing. And that is why to me it’s such a great thriller/spy movie, because it’s really about the existential crisis the character has, not about the investigation.
Maite, what attracts you to telling the stories of people that are often, not only ignored by cinema, but by society. And maybe that’s a bigger message in your film, that these people are not gone: they are just in a different stage in their lives.
Alberdi: I think there are different reasons. A simple one is what one of the characters told me once: that a person between 80 and 81 years of age is like a baby between 1 and 2 years old. In one year, you see so many changes. I tried to catch that reality and the changes they undergo. And these films make you realize that there are so many ways to live old age. It also reflects on Chile’s pension system.
So this Pablo, is why you want to champion the film, given the possibility, which it now has, to reach wider audiences because of its double nomination?
Larrain: Yes, it’s incredible. It’s historical for us that a movie has been double short-listed. Chile has a terrible pension system that is just humiliating for many people who have worked all their lives and now cannot work because of their age or physical condition. The pensions are insulting and humiliating. And these are the ones hardest hit by COVID-19 right now. So, we’re talking about probably the most fragile, maybe forgotten part of our society. This movie shines a light on them and shows how strong and beautiful they can be. I’ve struggled all my life about the impact that cinema can really have on people’s lives, about the role of art in society. This is a very cathartic movie that I wish many people around the world will get to see.
And when you talk about compassion, this is the compassion that Sergio shows in the movie to other residents, treating them as individuals and realizing what pain or hurt they’ve suffered? In the case of one, he gets photos of her children so that she can still remember them as she knows she’s losing her memory, which is one of the most moving moments in the film.
Larrain: I agree but I am also referring to the compassion that it has, from Maite’s point of view. I don’t know, it’s funny because compassion means the same in English and in Spanish. But in Spanish, it’s ‘Compasión’ which could almost mean ‘with passion.’ I think this movie has both, it has passion and compassion, which is a very beautiful cocktail for humanity.
Maite, you say you realized that the heart of the movie was in the editing and you were drawn to that, and that became the movie, as it were.
Alberdi: There are scenes where I suffered during the shoot, for example in the scene when Rubida has received the pictures and Sergio says to her, “Please cry, feel free to cry.” At that moment he builds that relationship with her and I’m there with the camera, and I ask myself if I should be there? The difficult thing for me in the editing suite was to return to my original detective idea, that was more rational, probably, and more focused on the facts and not on the experience. But to live that painful experience was what allowed me to make decisions in the editing.
You have said that documentaries entail waiting for these kinds of moments to happen….
Alberdi: Yes, I also worked as a private detective assistant for a couple of months with Romulo [the investigator] and his work was very similar to mine. Sometimes we were following people and waiting at a corner of a building until we took the shot that was proof that we needed for a client. It was the same for me…I would spend three days waiting until I pressed the record button. It’s waiting to catch those key moments.
How long was the shoot?
Alberdi: Inside the retirement home? Three months.
Larrain: How long did you edit?
Alberdi: A year and a half.
Pablo, how long does it take to make your films?
Larrain: Well, I’m working on a movie that we thought about three to four years ago. We may develop a movie over the same time as a documentary but we can’t take a year and a half to edit. That’s a luxury that documentaries are lucky to have.
Alberdi: No, it’s not good luck, we have 300 hours to edit so I always say for a documentary, it’s an exercise on what to take out. It’s like sculpting a big rock where you have 298 hours until you create the piece you want.
Larrain: But how many people worked on the movie?
Alberdi: In the editing?
Larrain: No, how many people actually made the movie?
Alberdi: It was a small crew, just four in the shoot.
Larrain: That is what I mean. It’s a very private process; there is no anxiety because you don’t have a bigger structure that is pushing you to deliver something. It’s wonderful.
Maite, what drives you to make documentaries and do you think they can accelerate change in any way?
Alberdi: I have been with a lot of U.S. documentary filmmakers who always say that they want to change the world. I don’t know if we are going to change the world with documentaries but I think that we can plant questions in people’s minds, and in the media. There are films, documentaries, that you can plan out as a campaign to change a specific issue. We did it with “The Grown-Ups’ and we changed the law for the disabled; we were successful in that sense.
In this one we didn’t plan a specific campaign but I think there are a lot of people in the media or at home discussing the topic. The opportunity to spark micro world discussions is a gift to me as a filmmaker.