Review: ‘The Mole Agent,’ starring Sergio Chamy, Rómulo Aitken, Marta Olivares, Berta Ureta, Zoila González, Petronila Abarca and Rubira Olivares

April 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sergio Chamy and Rómulo Aitken in “The Mole Agent” (Photo by Alvaro Reyes/Gravitas Ventures)

“The Mole Agent”

Directed by Maite Alberdi

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in San Francisco, Chile, the documentary film “The Mole Agent” features an all-Chilean group of people who are connected in some way the San Francisco Nursing Home.

Culture Clash: A widower in his 80s is hired to be a spy in the nursing home to find out if there is abuse or neglect in this residential facility.

Culture Audience: “The Mole Agent” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in non-fiction stories about life in retirement homes, even if some of the movie’s scenes look very staged and contrived.

Berta “Bertita” Ureta and Sergio Chamy in “The Mole Agent” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Mole Agent” offers an entertaining and emotionally moving portrait of humanity in a Chilean retirement home. However, the “spy” aspect of the story seems as contrived and cutesy as some of the documentary’s scenes. There are several parts of the movie that look more like a scripted dramedy instead of a genuine cinéma vérité documentary. But if viewers are willing to enjoy the ride, they’ll be charmed by the people in the movie and the film’s overall life-affirming messages.

Directed by Maite Alberdi, “The Mole Agent” takes place primarily at the San Francisco Retirement Home in San Francisco, Chile. It’s a living facility that houses about 50 to 60 people (mostly women), and almost all the residents are over the age of 70. It’s here that an “undercover” investigation takes place that serves as the basis of this movie.

In the beginning of “The Mole Agent,” it’s explained that a daughter of one of the retirement home’s residents wants to investigate the retirement home to see if there is any secret abuse and neglect taking place there. How does it get investigated? An elderly man is recruited from the public to check into the facility as a resident for three months.

The movie shows the newspaper ad that was placed to look for this would-be spy or “mole agent.” The description reads: “Elderly male needed, retired between 80 and 90 years old, independent, discreet and competent with technology.” A man identified as Rómulo Aitken is shown interviewing some job applicants.

Is Aitken a private investigator? An actor? The movie never says, but he has the role of hiring and training the person who gets the job. There’s a montage of elderly men being interviewed to comical effect. When they’re told what the nature of the job is, they don’t seem to have a problem with spying, but a few have a problem with the technology requirement of the job. One man, whether he knows it or not, disqualifies himself when he says that he thinks the Internet is useless.

The person who ends up getting hired is an affable 83-year-old widower from Santiago named Sergio Chamy. He explains that his wife died a few months earlier and he’s an independent person who doesn’t have to consult anyone about where he wants to live. “I’m the one who makes decisions about myself,” Chamy says.

After he’s hired, there are the inevitable scenes played for laughs of Aitken showing the technology-deficient Chamy how to use FaceTime and WhatsApp on an iPhone. This newly appointed “spy” is also given a pair of eyeglasses that are equipped with a surveillance camera. Some of the movie’s scenes include footage taken from these spy eyeglasses.

And he’s even given a magnifying glass, as if the filmmakers want to make him look like a Sherlock Holmes type of character. Chamy actually never needs to use the magnifying glass at the retirement home, but it’s amusing and eye-catching to see him test out the magnifying glass. There are several scenes like this in the movie that seem staged for optics, rather than chronicling any real detective work.

Before he leaves to check into the retirement home, Chamy and his adult daughter Dalal meet with Aitken to get any questions answered. Dalal is concerned about the legalities of what her father is doing, but Aitken assures her that the filmmaking crew has permission to film in the retirement home. Aitken tells them that the filmmakers have told the retirement home that they are making a documentary about Chamy. However, based on the level of access that the filmmaking crew had in several private rooms of other residents, it seems pretty obvious that certain people who worked at the retirement home knew exactly what this documentary was about ahead of time.

During this meeting, Chamy reassures his daughter that checking into this retirement home is something he wants to do because it will help him take his mind off of his widower grief. He says that this investigative assignment will be “mentally tiring but mentally liberating,” because he won’t be “thinking of your mother all the time.” He and Dalal get a little bit choked up with emotions when he mentions the late matriarch of the family.

Chamy is told that the client’s mother in the retirement home is named Sonia Perez. He is tasked with keeping an eye on Perez to see if she is being treated well. The residential rooms have sheets of paper taped to the entry doors with the name of each person who lives in the room. And so, with “Pink Panther”-like music as part of the movie’s score (which was written by Vincent van Warmerdam), the movie shows Chamy going from room to room, looking for Sonia Perez’s name on the front of doors.

“The Mole Agent” makes it look like he can’t find her for at least two or three days, but the editing of this movie doesn’t make it clear exactly how long it really took. Aitken tells Chamy that he shouldn’t ask any of the retirement home staffers about Perez because it would arouse suspicion. And so, Chamy asks some residents if they know where Perez’s room is and they claim they’ve never heard of her. It’s all just leads to more contrived-looking series of scenes of Chamy lurking in hallways and taking notes.

And then there’s the inevitable moment when he’s snooping around and someone suddenly comes out of a room and startles him. And so, he quickly pretends that he wasn’t looking at the names of people on the doors. If he could’ve done some stereotypical “I’m just minding my own business” whistling, the filmmakers probably would’ve loved it. Considering that Chamy has no real experience as a detective, any “investigating” he does looks purely for show. There are parts of this movie that look like Chamy knew in advance that he had to do some acting to create footage that the filmmakers could use.

“The Mole Agent” makes it look like every day he’s in the retirement home, Chamy writes notes in a journal and calls in to Aitken to give a summary of what he found out that day. He’s also told that he has to this report is a daily requirement for the assignment. Cue the scenes of Chamy fumbling to upload some of the secret photos and videos that he took in the retirement phone.

Chamy eventually finds Perez, but it turns out that she’s very aloof and doesn’t like to talk very much. She rebuffs his attempts to have conversations with her. The movie then turns into something else: Chamy ends up becoming friendly with and emotionally attached to other residents at the retirement home. All of his new friends happen to be women.

The women he forms the closest bonds with are

  • Berta “Bertita” Ureta, who makes it known as soon as she sees Chamy that she’s attracted to him.
  • Marta Olivares, who has a child-like demeanor and a mischievous side to her.
  • Petronila “Petita” Abarca, who likes to read poetry as a way to connect with other people.
  • Rubira Olivares, who shows signs of depression and other mental-health issues.
  • Zoila González, who is very religious and says that she often talks to Jesus Christ.

Over the course of the movie, Chamy acts less like a detective and more like a personal counselor/therapist to the women. He has a positive and upbeat attitude that lifts the residents’ spirits. And he is tolerant and understanding of any quirks that they might have.

For example, Oliveras is in such an infantile state of mind that she still thinks her mother is still alive. The retirement home’s staffers indulge this delusion by calling on Oliveras on the phone and pretending to be her mother, so Oliveras won’t feel her family has forgotten about her. Chamy plays along with this ruse too, because he knows that it’s the type of lie that helps Oliveras cope with her loneliness. He’s also patient with her when she plays little pranks on him, such as stealing items out of his pockets.

Viewers will amused at the way Ureta turns up the charm in her flirtation with Chamy. During his first or second day at the retirement home, he’s eating by himself in the cafeteria-styled dining room. She goes over to him and gives him her dessert.

Later, they have a private conversation alone together and Ureta doesn’t even try to hide her delight when she finds out he’s a recent widower. At one point in the movie, she blurts in a half-joking way, while Chamy and other people are in the room, that the retirement home would be an ideal place for a wedding. During a dance party at the home, Ureta tells Chamy that she’s in love with him, and he eventually tells her if he’s interested in pursuing a romance with her or not.

And what about the detective work that Chamy was hired to do? The most meaningful parts of the movie aren’t Chamy’s spying shenanigans but the more genuine moments that show how Chamy helps the residents cope with the emotional pain of feeling lonely and abandoned. When he sees firsthand that some of the home’s residents don’t have anyone visiting them, it makes him appreciate how lucky he is to have a loving family.

In the movie, Chamy says that has two daughters, one son and five grandchildren. Chamy turned 84 years old in the retirement home while filming this documentary. Dalal, Chamy’s son and a granddaughter and grandson visit him on his birthday. At the birthday party for Chamy, the staffers surprise him by having a singer serenade him, and he is moved to tears. He might have checked into the facility to try to find abuse and neglect, but by the end of this story, he finds a sense of renewed hope about life that the movie obviously wants viewers to feel too.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Mole Agent” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020. PBS’s “POV” series premiered “The Mole Agent” on January 25, 2021. The movie is also available for streaming on Hulu.

Review: ‘The Wolf House,’ starring Amalia Kassai and Rainer Krausse

May 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

“The Wolf House” (Image courtesy of KimStim)

“The Wolf House”

Directed by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña

Spanish and German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chile, the animated film “The Wolf House” tells the story of a woman named Maria, who has escaped from a cult of German religious fanatics, and the house that comes to life after she finds refuge there.

Culture Clash: The nightmarish story of Maria’s isolation in the house has various hallucinations where she is sometimes at odds with entities in the house that morph into other beings.

Culture Audience: “The Wolf House” will appeal primarily to people who like avant-garde animation.

“The Wolf House” (Image courtesy of KimStim)

To understand the experimental animated film “The Wolf House,” it’s better that people know in advance that the movie is inspired by the story of Colonia Dignidad, a real-life cult founded in in 1961 in Chile by a German fugitive Paul Schäfer, who ended up being a convicted child abuser. Not knowing this historical background for the film will leave viewers very confused over the point of this often-incoherent movie, which has striking visuals but lacks a well-written storyline.

“The Wolf House” has a movie-within-a-movie concept, since the it’s supposed to be “found footage” of a propaganda film made by a German colony in Chile and narrated by a man called Wolf (voiced by Rainer Krausse), whose voice is heard at the beginning and at the end of the film. Viewers can assume that Wolf is the cult leader, based on he says in the movie’s last scene.

During the course of the movie, the story is told of a young woman named Maria, who lived in the community but was punished for letting three little pigs escape. She was kept in solitary confinement for 100 days and 100 nights until she escaped into the woods and hid in an isolated house.

“The wolf is coming,” Maria says. “But he will not catch me.” When Maria  (voiced by Amalia Kassai) begins speaking, she takes over the narration of the majority of the movie that shows what happens inside the house while she’s hiding.

What takes place inside the house is like a fever dream, and it’s up to the viewers to interpret what could be real and what could be Maria’s imagination. The entire movie plays out like a psychedelic, nightmarish fairy tale. Just like Lewis Carroll’s Alice who went down the rabbit hole, Maria in “The Wolf House” experiences her own version of a weird and confined alternative world.

Maria asks for help with food, shelter and water—and a tree comes to life to help her. In the house, she finds two pigs, which she names Pedro and Ana. She gives them water and notices that they have human hands. Small animals also give Maria an apple as a thank you gift. Ana and Pedro eventually morph into two human children, with Pedro as a boy who’s younger than Ana. In “The Wolf House,” Kassai also voices the characters of Ana and Pedro.

Maria reads a book to Pedro called “The Dog and the House,” which is about a disobedient dog who jumped out of a window and was never found again but is presumed dead since the wind brought back the smell of the dog’s broken bones and other injuries. The book is an obvious parallel to what Maria might experience, and it serves as a warning/cautionary tale to anyone else who might think of escaping the cult.

The quirky animation of “The Wolf House” was shot frame-by-frame with digital photography. The ever-morphing characters were presented in two ways: (1) as animated puppets made out of paper, cardboard, masking tape and paint and (2) as animated drawings on the walls of the house. Nothing really stays still in the house, and all is not what they seem to be. Walls and furniture can turn into body parts; people can emerge from different objects; and human characters can change their physical size and hair color, or can morph back and forth into animals or other different things.

When Maria is feeling safe and comfortable, she speaks in Spanish. When she’s feeling angry or threatened, she speaks in German. It’s a clear metaphor for her true self being a Spanish-speaking Chilean, while she takes on the persona of her German cult tormenters when she’s having negative thoughts.

When Maria thinks of humans in degrading terms, they’re visualized as pigs. And when Pedro and Ana morph from being Latino-looking children into blond-haired German-looking children, it’s a metaphor for Nazi-like conformity that gives preference to Aryan-looking people. These types of metaphors in “The Wolf House” are why the movie has a deeper meaning if audiences know in advance that the disturbing history of Colonia Dignidad is the basis of “The Wolf House” screenplay.

“The Wolf House” directors Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña wrote the screenplay with Alejandra Moffat. The script seems to be an unfocused secondary priority that just goes with the flow of whatever strange visual effects that the filmmakers wanted to infuse throughout the story. However, the art direction from León, Cociña and Natalia Geisse succeeds on a much higher artistic level than the movie’s script. There are some truly unique images that make “The Wolf House” a treat for people who might be interested in a more avant-garde alternative to Laika animated films.

For people who don’t have the benefit of knowing what inspired “The Wolf House,” the visuals might be enough to hold an audience’s interest. Unfortunately, Kassai’s narration, which has a whispering sing-song tone, can be extremely grating after a while. “The Wolf House” is definitely not a family film (since children will not understand the movie at all), nor is it a mainstream film for adults. Ultimately, the movie’s concept needed to better articulated in its writing, and “The Wolf House” probably would have been better off as a short film.

KimStim released “The Wolf House” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on May 15, 2020.

Review: ‘The Cordillera of Dreams,’ starring Pablo Salas, Jorge Baradit, Francisco Gazitúa, Javiera Parra and Alvara Amigo

February 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

“The Cordillera of Dreams” (Photo courtesy of Icarus Films)

“The Cordillera of Dreams”

Directed by Patricio Guzmán

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: This documentary examines the past and present political culture of Chile, with the Andes mountain range as a backdrop.

Culture Clash: Survivors of Chile’s turbulent history tell their stories of what it was like to live during the political battles of democracy versus dictatorship from the 1970s to the present.

Culture Audience: “The Cordillera of Dreams” will appeal primarily to people who have an interest in South American history and nature.

“The Cordillera of Dreams” (Photo courtesy if Icarus Films)

“The Cordillera of Dreams” is part travel documentary, part Chilean history lesson and part autobiography. (The word “cordillera” means mountain range.) The movie, which is narrated in voiceover only by director Patricio Guzmán, takes viewers on a journey through Santiago and other parts of Chile, to get first-person accounts of the often painful experiences of living through turbulent times, The regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, is put under a particular spotlight in the film.

“The Cordillera of Dreams” is the third film in Guzmán’s trilogy of documentaries about how Chile’s natural land ties into Chile’s sociological history. The trilogy began with  2011’s “Nostalgia for the Light” and continued with 2015’s “The Pearl Button.” But before “The Cordillera of Dreams” gets to the history of Chilean politics during the Pinochet regime, the documentary begins by immersing viewers into the idea that while different types of government might come and go and Chile, the Andes Mountains have remained the one true constant for changing eras and social customs in Chile.

The cinematography (by Samuel Lahu) is absolutely stunning, especially when taking in the majestic views of the Andes Mountains. (The cinematography is probably one of the main reasons why “The Cordillera of Dreams” won the prize for Best Documentary at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.) The documentary interviews a few people who live in the Andes, including sculptor Francisco Gazitúa, who says: “When you live in the Andes for many years, it feels like you’re inside a large, rocky container … It’s a labyrinth.”

Another sculptor named Vicente Gajadro, who likes to extract rocks from the Andes to see what’s inside, had this to say about living in these natural surroundings: “The Cordillera is a great mystery. I believe it’s a cultural landmark.” He also says of the enormous mountains: “They protect me, but they also isolate me.”

Alvaro Amigo, a volcanologist, comments on the awe-inspiring landscape: “When I look at the Cordillera, I see millions of years of evolution exposed.” And writer Jorge Baradit says that the Cordillera is “like a sea that makes us an island.”

Guzmán says that crossing the Cordillera is like arriving in a place that’s in the faraway past. “Everything seems unreal. I feel somewhat like an alien.” He says his earliest childhood memory of the Cordillera was seeing it on matchboxes. The director then shows viewers the house he used to live in when he was young. In stark contrast to the natural and clean-looking beauty of the Andes, the abandoned house is now in an area that looks like a junkyard. Guzmán, who no longer lives in Chile, says that going to his childhood home is a sad reminder of a more peaceful time in Chile, before the political “earthquake” of September 11, 1973.

On that day, when Guzmán was 32 years old, his life and the lives of millions of other Chileans changed forever, as a military coup d’état overthrew Socialist President Salvador Allende and elevated to power Pinochet as a dictatorial and brutal leader who ordered the persecution of left-wing political activists and other left-leaning Allende supporters. Many innocent people were also caught up in the turmoil, as the police and other military raided cities. There were widespread kidnappings, tortures and murders of thousands of people.

It’s here, near the middle of the film, that the story shifts to the urban bustle of Santiago, Chile’s capital city. Guzmán revisits the Stadium in Santiago, where thousands of male civilians, ages 15 to 65, were taken from their homes by police, arrested, and then rounded up and held as prisoners at the stadium, where they often tortured. Guzmán was one of those prisoners, and he remembers how just a few years before the coup d’état, he had been a happy World Cup spectator at the stadium when Italy played against Chile.

Guzmán was a political prisoner for two weeks, and even though the military put him under duress to tell them where he had put his documentary film footage of the military committing crimes, he refused to tell them. The experience of being imprisoned was so traumatic for Guzmán that he left Chile and hasn’t lived there since. Meanwhile, sculptor Francisco Gazitúa said he was under house arrest for four years.

Another person who shares their memories of the beginning of the Pinochet regime is singer Javiera Parra, remembers as a child seeing the police raiding people’s homes and feeling fear and uncertainty as military tanks would pass by when she was in a schoolyard. The feelings and insecurity and devastation still remain with the survivors, and will probably stay with them for the rest of their lives when they think about this disturbing time in Chile’s history.”

Perhaps the most fascinating person in the documentary is photo/video journalist Pablo Salas, who has been documenting Santiago street life since the 1970s and has almost miraculously never been arrested, even though he’s been in the middle of countless protests and violence in the streets. The documentary includes some archival footage that Salas was generous enough to share, giving insight into how chaotic and brutal life was on the streets of Santiago during the Pinochet regime. (The documentary also shows Salas’ home office, which is stacked to the brim with tapes he’s saved over the years.)

The archival footage shows scenes of people literally being dragged away by police for no apparent reason, as family members and friends try in vain to stop this horror from happening. People are seen getting beaten or blasted with water by police. And then there are the full-on riots that are shown. Although life in Chile is not as violently out-of-control as it was back then, there is still a lot of political unrest.

Salas, who obviously has a passion for it job, keeps documenting it all. He says the biggest difference now, compared to when he first started, is that more citizens can videorecord what’s happening, thanks to smartphones. He says he finds this change refreshing but also sometimes annoying when he wants to get footage but other non-journalist people are in the way trying to get their best shots too.

The documentary takes a brief, somewhat distracting detour into examining the trains that carry copper, Chile’s biggest natural resource. Even more interesting is the haunting footage inside Pinochet’s former offices, which are now abandoned but symbolize a period of Chilean history that the people cannot and should forget.

Guzmán has an almost poetic way of demonstrating the rot and neglect among the beauty of the Andes, as the documentary shows a junkyard of abandoned cars. It’s an obvious metaphor for Chile’s abandoned dreams for having a completely peaceful democracy. But Guzmán and many others haven’t given up hope in Chile. Just like items in a junkyard, perhaps what was abandoned can be salvaged and restored.

Icarus Films released “The Cordillera of Dreams” in New York City February 12, 2020, and will release the film in Los Angeles on February 21, 2020, followed by released in several other cities in the U.S. and Canada in the subsequent weeks. The movie was originally released in Chile and other countries in 2019.