The new king

Maite Alberdi on friendships and discoveries in The Mole Agent

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Mole Agent director Maite Alberdi with Anne-Katrin Titze on her composer Vincent van Warmerdam: “He took the reference of film noir and really adapted it to the emotion of the film and the tone of the film in the soft humour.”
The Mole Agent director Maite Alberdi with Anne-Katrin Titze on her composer Vincent van Warmerdam: “He took the reference of film noir and really adapted it to the emotion of the film and the tone of the film in the soft humour.”

Maite Alberdi’s Oscar-nominated Best Documentary Feature The Mole Agent (El Agente Topo), produced by Marcela Santibáñez, shot by Pablo Valdés with a perfect score from Vincent van Warmerdam, and a wonderful dance scene to The Platters’ Only You (And You Alone) was also shortlisted as Chile’s submission in the International Feature Film category. A highlight of last year’s New Directors/New Films, Alberdi’s immensely entertaining and wildly funny film starts out as an investigation into a specific place and slowly evolves into something much larger. Bruno Dumont’s films may come to mind - all that humanity is breathtaking!

Rómulo (Rómulo Aitken) with Sergio (Sergio Chamy) in The Mole Agent
Rómulo (Rómulo Aitken) with Sergio (Sergio Chamy) in The Mole Agent

A resemblance to Emmanuelle Riva (of Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Michael Haneke’s Amour), Al Pacino in Scarface, Peter Lord and Nick Park’s Chicken Run, Sergio Chamy’s wardrobe, and a surprise baby shower all came up in my lockdown conversation with Maite.

Sergio (Sergio Chamy) answers an ad placed by private detective Rómulo (Rómulo Aitken) looking for a man in his Eighties or Nineties to spy on the goings on in the San Francisco Nursing Home, located outside of Santiago, Chile. Sergio is hired and told he would check in as a resident for three months and report daily about the “target.” Rómulo advises him to be “prudent”. Armed with spy glasses and a camera pen he phones in not-so coded messages and videos.

At one point we see the film crew following our debonair agent hero. Alberdi keeps the tone light and profound simultaneously, as our top-pick agent tackles the tasks at hand. Widower Sergio is a smart dresser in his rotating assortment of V-neck sweaters and tweedy jackets. His newest best friends include Petita, who is a poet, Marta, a daring thief, and Bertita, who has been living in the home for 25 years. The latter flirts with him overtly and wants him to be her first love. The elegant Mme Rubira is the one, we can tell, Sergio clearly likes best.

Rómulo explains the spy camera glasses to Sergio
Rómulo explains the spy camera glasses to Sergio

From Santiago, Maite Alberdi joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on The Mole Agent.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi, Maite! Where are you?

Maite Alberdi: Hi, I’m in Santiago. And you?

AKT: I’m in New York. Are you going to Los Angeles for the Oscars?

MA: Yeah, until I will be on the plane, in this reality, I do not know. I am testing, I am making my RSVP now, I’m supposed to. It’s difficult, frontiers are closed. They cancel flights all the time. I’m supposed to. Until I will not be there, I don’t know.

AKT: I hope you can go! If you can go, will Sergio be going with you?

MA: Yeah, we’re going together.

AKT: I loved your film and congratulations for the Oscar nomination! Right from the start, the ad in the paper is wonderful. When do you ever have an ad looking for someone between 80 and 90? Right from the get-go this sets the tone and this is what remains. Why aren’t there more ads like that? Why aren’t there more jobs like that?

Sergio takes a magnified look at his spy camera pen
Sergio takes a magnified look at his spy camera pen

MA: It’s wonderful and it was a surprise for me. The detective had a mole that was 80 years old that he usually worked with and he broke his hip. So it was his idea to put the ad in the newspaper and for me it was like - this is not going to work. Nobody is going to call. Nobody in their 80s is going to buy the newspaper for finding jobs. And all of them were buying the newspaper to find a job, and I was like, I do not believe this! And 50 people arrived. It was amazing. And it shows how active people are and they want to be integrated into society.

AKT: Of course, it’s all about the wish to be useful and not a burden. We all need to feel that. What I also loved was the background of the interviews. Is that Rómulo’s assistant?

MA: Yeah, I love him. It’s so wonderful that you noticed him! For me, his assistant Juan Pablo, he’s the best detective in the world and I really love him. He’s so far in the background, but he’s so important to me.

AKT: His reactions are great, his facial expressions while listening in. I noticed what a smart dresser Sergio is. His V-neck sweaters and colour coordinated shirts and his tweed jackets and how he is dressing up every day. That’s his wardrobe, I suppose?

Bertita approaches the new man Sergio with romance on her mind
Bertita approaches the new man Sergio with romance on her mind

MA: Yeah, it’s his wardrobe and we really asked him - because he has other kinds of jackets - to maintain the line when we were shooting.

AKT: You have two big parties going on in the nursing home, the anniversary celebration and the other is Sergio’s birthday. They are wearing wings and extravagant costumes. Were you helping them out or is that really how parties are celebrated in that nursing home?

MA: I’m looking at my desktop because it’s the first time that someone asks me this. I’m trying to find a picture that I’m going to share with you. This place is like - they make parties all the time. I’m sharing with you a picture of a party we didn’t shoot. It’s my baby shower that they organised. The nursing staff, they produce all that and they choose the colours. They organised my baby shower - it was a surprise for me.

AKT: Oh wow!

MA: Yeah, they make these kinds of things all the time! It’s super amazing.

Bertita with Maite Alberdi at the surprise “Baby shower” organized for the director by the San Francisco Nursing Home
Bertita with Maite Alberdi at the surprise “Baby shower” organized for the director by the San Francisco Nursing Home

AKT: The ironies, here they are with wings on! It’s wonderful. Another lovely point of irony is the song Only You, and there he is dancing with everyone! The head of the home is bringing in one after the other. So it’s not only you.

MA: No, and they were super happy because they had only three men for years, so the previous anniversaries they always had the same king. So this time they changed the king, for them it was like, wow, we had the same king for the last ten years!

AKT: There are so many great moments, one after another. I liked that you also gave us room to breathe with footage of cats and flowers. After moments of intense emotion. Did you work on this in the editing?

MA: It was super difficult to find the equilibrium. At some point the film was more full of flowers and cats because I felt that I need more rest in the emotions because I was also living the emotions. The scene in the corridor when Rubira is crying, and I was overwhelmed shooting that, too. In some way I think I edited that in a way that I also needed during the shooting. Like, to go outside and see the cats. It was to sit and to wait and to see heavy emotions and then you have fun. You have a party, two hours before you were crying. And I think life is like that. The flowers are there and sometimes you’re not looking. But they are there. Genres in documentaries are more mixed than in fiction. You have drama, comedy, noir, action, thriller. I think one day in reality can have all of that mixed. The flowers and the cats are that for me. Necessary rest.

Sergio works on his communication skills with Rómulo
Sergio works on his communication skills with Rómulo

AKT: You mention the crying scene which is of course at the core of the film. Signora Rubira from the turquoise wool onwards, she is a special presence. Until this morning when I was looking at my notes, I suddenly realized who she reminded me of - Emmanuelle Riva from Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Her last film was Haneke’s Amour. You see the resemblance?

MA (looking at images): Yeah. Completely. Wow.

AKT: You lead us in such interesting directions, and then the “characters” seem to take over. I’m thinking for instance of Marta, the thief. First you may find her annoying, the mother story, and then the screw turns and we start to love them. I don’t know how you felt while filming them; they must’ve got on your nerves at some points.

MA: For me Marta was a super discovery and a very big gift. Because they all break what you project and all the categories of dementia. I studied a lot of dementia because I made a play and I worked with it on my previous film and I researched all the stages and the ways of how the mind works, but they always break that. It’s like you think that they’re completely not connecting, but she connects. Someone says something funny and she connects, but at the end she is expecting a call from her mother. In the retirement home they tell them about the film for kids called Chicken Run. Because all day long they are planning strategies to escape. They were super funny and they live in their own world but in the end they were super connected.

Marta asleep on the right and Sergio in the back paying close attention to the goings on: “Sergio is super important with Marta.”
Marta asleep on the right and Sergio in the back paying close attention to the goings on: “Sergio is super important with Marta.”

For me the scene of Sergio’s birthday when you realize that she remembers the song and connects the song with her feelings for him as a friend, but super connected, it’s like wow! And for Sergio it was very touching too, because he started with a lot of projections with Marta. It’s not in the film, but the first day that he arrived, they put him to have teatime at the same table with her. And he didn’t want to be at the same table with her. Because she doesn’t eat well, “I’m going to get crazy,” connecting with these people. And now she’s his best friend in life. He’s really concerned about her. That travel with Sergio is super important with Marta. As he gave time to them, he really discovered identities that in another context he would never have given time because of what he projected.

AKT: And we are going with him. We are fully on this journey with him, which is remarkable, because there is so much fear. Oh no, this is me possibly in the future! This is family members! For everybody! It’s too close for comfort, but then with him and your film, well, it’s not. You have a great score that lures us and tricks us on the journey.

MA: The music was important because it was the only element of film noir that I knew that I could maintain during all the film. In the office it was easy to control the light, and the objects of the detective, the reference was constant. In the retirement home it was more difficult. And Vincent van Warmerdam did a great job, because he took the reference of film noir and really adapted it to the emotion of the film and the tone of the film in the soft humour. In the drama but not increasing the drama. I think it’s an accompaniment that is coherent with the film and with the challenge of the genre music that it has.

Bertita talks with the director of the San Francisco Nursing Home about the potential of a wedding taking place.
Bertita talks with the director of the San Francisco Nursing Home about the potential of a wedding taking place.

AKT: It works. And as you say, in the nursing home you don’t have Al Pacino looking down from the wall.

MA: Exactly.

AKT: Mothers are very much on everybody’s mind. The children don’t visit, but it is really the mothers they are longing for. It comes in strongly. Were you surprised how much mothers were at the centre of their thoughts?

MA: No. And I think it’s also my point of view, maybe more than Sergio’s. I miss my mom a lot. I think in the editing I put that topic too. You’re right, it’s Marta with the mother, it’s the poem of the mother twice, yeah.

AKT: Does Sergio still visit his friends?

MA: Yeah, a lot. After he left the retirement home he went at least once a month and it was far from his home, an hour and a half. But with the pandemic he cannot and they are on strict lockdown and we are on strict lockdown. But he is calling all the time and updates me about them.

AKT: Have you visited them?

MA: Yeah, before COVID. And as I showed you, they made my baby shower and I had to come with the baby, yeah.

AKT: I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the Oscars.

MA: Thank you! I love your home! I love it!

AKT: Thank you so much.

The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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