by: Joseph R. Castel
When director Maite Alberdiʼs The Mole Agent begins, we’re watching a montage of elderly Chilean gentlemen being interviewed for a position that requires spying. Just what kind of snooping isn’t clear at first, but this covert operation requires knowing how to work a contemporary cell phone, and the men being interviewed all fumble at trying to take photos and videos, and in some cases just answering the phone is too high tech for these geriatrics. The beginning of this “documentary” and I use the term loosely, made me really upset. I had a visceral reaction to the filmmakerʼs attempt at comedy. Why is the director making fun of these elderly men at their expense?
Clearly, this Sundance feature from Chile, which is now an Oscar contender for Best Documentary, has got to offer something more than just taking comedic cheap shots at the elderly.
Cleverly utilizing espionage music and stark lighting, Alberdi sets up the opening in a 1940s Film Noir gumshoe parody style. Romulo Aitken, a former federal investigator, now with his own detective agency, impatiently interviews the men. The gruff, middle-aged detective finally settles on 83 year-old Sergio Chamy, even though his new James Bond has no idea how to even work a cell phone. His regular senior Sherlock recently broke his hip, so itʼs up to Sergio to bring the suspected evildoers to justice.
If Sergio chooses to accept the mission, he has to live undercover for three months at a local nursing home to find out if the staff is abusing one of its residents. Romuloʼs client is the daughter of the alleged victim, and she wants to know if someone is stealing from her mother or worse, physically hurting the docile woman who suffers from dementia.
The lines of reality and fiction blur in this documentary, which sometimes borders on mocumentary. The director herself has admitted to setting up scenes to embellish this mystery/whodunit. Sergio is even given a pair of thick rim black glasses that have a hidden camera embedded in the frame, but Sergio doesn’t use them as they make him dizzy This Mission Impossible setup, think Tom Cruise at 90, is obviously just a hook to get viewers engaged in the story, after all, watching the elderly decline inside a nursing home is not exactly high ratings entertainment. And of course, I fell for the setup.
Alberdiʼs film crew was already shooting scenes at the nursing home under the guise of making a documentary about the daily life of a care facility, so when Sergio moves in, there are no suspicions. However, would a nursing home that was abusing its patients allow cameras inside its facility? This red flag raises the question of how “real” this documentary really is.
As the mystery of the allegedly abused woman curiously unfolds, we see Sergio engaging with the other female residents. As one of only four men inside the home, heʼs the new old cock in the hen house. And heʼs charming and gracious with one sweet, naïve, lady, who sadly falls madly in love with him, only to be rejected by the reticent widower. As Sergio gets to know the residents and staff, he becomes bored with spying, and either forgets or chooses not to report anything back to Romulo, which prompts angry phone calls from the lead investigator. Frankly, thereʼs nothing to report. The woman is not being abused as far as Sergio is concerned.
What Sergio does discover about this quaint little nursing home is that the residents have been abandoned by their families. Few patients ever receive guests. One woman, who is clearly suffering from dementia, is always threatening to have her mother take her away from the home. But her mother is dead, and no other relative visits the woman, so the nurses on duty call and pretend to be the womanʼs mother, telling her to be patient and assuring her everything is all right. At first, Sergio witnesses this act of deception with disgust, but soon realizes that if these nurses didnʼt call the woman regularly, she wouldnʼt have any kind of contact with another human being who says “I love you.”
As Sergio becomes less interested in spying, he becomes more interested in comforting the other residents who are slowly deteriorating. He consoles them, and helps them cope with their loneliness and frailty, by bringing them joy and laughter through memories of their past, and hopes for the present.
Spoiler Alert! Eventually, Sergio has had enough and wishes to be discharged. He tells Romulo in one final report that neither the staff nor the residents are mistreating the patient he was supposed to keep an eye on. Sergio accuses Romoluʼs client of being the real abuser, who rarely comes to visit her mother. This turn of events is what makes the documentary so powerful. Itʼs a contemporary testament of what society does with its elders. This plot twist turns the mystery back on itself, shining a righteous mirror onto our youth oriented culture, and clearly making The Mole Agent a candidate worthy of an Oscar.