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Maite Alberdi On Her 'Spy Thriller' Documentary Set In A Nursing Home


There's nothing like a spy film for a little summer distraction. But the new Chilean movie "The Mole Agent" is not your typical spy thriller. It's actually a documentary. While it has the feel of fiction, the plot I'm about to tell you really happened.

Abuse is suspected at a nursing home in Santiago. A family wants answers. But how to get at the truth? Send in a mole. Sergio is an affable 83-year-old widower with no prior experience in espionage. And during his mission, he discovers a deeper appreciation for more than just the hidden spy cameras and the thrill of a new job. Maite Alberdi is the director of "The Mole Agent," and she joins me now from Santiago.

Welcome to the program.

MAITE ALBERDI: Thank you for the invitation.

ELLIOTT: So how did you come up with the plot to put the nursing home at the center of your spy thriller?

ALBERDI: (Laughter) At the beginning, I wanted to make a film about a private detective. And I started to work as an assistant of a private detective to make this research. And I realized that he usually work in cases of retirement homes. So the detective was looking for a mole to work with, and so he arrived and was, like, a perfect film character that I was not expecting.

ELLIOTT: So Sergio was not somebody that you cast but that you just came across in the process of researching this private eye.

ALBERDI: Yeah. It was - I think that Sergio was a gift because one month before shooting, the mole that Romulo, the detective, usually work with - he broke his hip. So he decide to put the ad in the newspaper, like, offering a job. And I said, nobody's going to call. And it was amazing how 50 people between 80 and 90 years old were looking for a job. And they arrived to the interviews, and that was how Sergio appears.

ELLIOTT: So how did you gain access into the nursing home? They didn't know that you were sending in a mole.

ALBERDI: No, they didn't know. And it was a super difficult thing to plan. It was, like, a big little lie, I usually say. We say to them, I wanted to make a film about old age. And as my previous films are about old people, they trust. And I say to them that I want to focus if someone new arrives. So we start to shoot inside there three weeks before that Sergio arrives. And when he arrives, we focus on him, and we act that we didn't know him from before.

And the first people that we decided to show the film was the director, some of the people that work inside the retirement home because we were really concerned. But they loved the film, and they are saying that it's their life, and the film really represent them.

ELLIOTT: So in a way, you were a spy yourself.

ALBERDI: Completely, yes.

ELLIOTT: (Laughter).

ALBERDI: Exactly.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk about Sergio and how he changes while he's in this nursing home. And it's not just that he changes into a spy. Tell me about what happens to him when he's there.

ALBERDI: Yeah. I think that in the first week, he really wanted to be a good spy, even if he was the worst spy in the world. He was, like, calling the detective with open call...

ELLIOTT: (Laughter).

ALBERDI: ...Near the nurses. And I was like, oh. And I cannot say nothing because it's supposed that I don't know him. But in some point, he started to make friends, and the friends have more place in his life than his job. So yeah, it was a trouble for him, and it was also a trouble for me as a director that all the things that I expect that could happen in this spy movie started to don't happen and started to happen and other kind of more emotional stuff.

ELLIOTT: A more emotional story as he really connects with these mostly women in this retirement home who are very, very lonely. They also sort of see him as a hot commodity, right? Everyone wants to be his love interest. He dances with them. It's just really sweet and heartwarming.

ALBERDI: Yeah, he's really sweet and heartwarming. And he has the capacity of listen. I think that that's why I really admire him, and that's why he touched the heart of all that women that nobody listens to them. And that's why all of them get in love with him. Yeah. And he always thought that they were acting, and it was like, Sergio, they are really in love with you. I cannot do nothing with that.

ELLIOTT: (Laughter) You were very lucky with your characters because Sergio, the women, everyone - the characters really just came alive, and you felt like you understood who they were in this film.

ALBERDI: No. It's - for me, documentary filmmaking is an exercise of patient. I think that if you give time to someone, something amazing or attractive is going to appear with time. And to make this kind of documentary, we spend a lot of time with the character until the essential of the people or the characters appears. And we were waiting until things happen, for example. So it's an exercise of waiting. Yeah.

ELLIOTT: Maite Alberdi is the director of "The Mole Agent." It's available on demand on September 1.

Thank you so much for talking with us on the program.

ALBERDI: Thank you, Debbie. Thank you for inviting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR AND 9 THEORY'S "CUICA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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