Docs: The Mole Agent (2020)
The fear of how old age erodes our faculties and the way we perceive and treat our elders invariably reveals something about ourselves. In her charming, off-kilter documentary, The Mole Agent, Chilean director Maite Alberdi confronts that fear directly and honestly.
Endearing and poignant in equal measure, The Mole Agent takes an outlandish premise and effortlessly extracts humor out of it, finding in the process deeper meanings in the least expected places.
The feature, which screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, is now one of the five nominees for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Gravitas Ventures acquired U.S. distribution rights, and the film was broadcast on PBS as part of their POV program.
Rómulo Aitken runs a private detective agency, specializing in inspecting and reporting of care homes that abuse their residents. His method is to plant a ‘mole’ in the home, equipped with spying gadgets and smartphones and reporting on anything untoward that may be happening.
Romulo is asked by a client to investigate the possible abuse of a client’s mother in a retirement home. He places an ad in a newspaper: “Retiree wanted, 80-90 years old, self-sufficient, of good health, discreet, tech-savvy.” As a result, many real-life octogenarians turn up to be interviewed for the job. The pension system is so bad that people are looking for work.
Nominally, The Mole Agent sounds like an experiment for a YouTube video. Sergio (83) goes undercover in an elderly care home to act as a mole agent for a private detective.
The film observes Sergio, a naturally charming man, easily making friends during his temporary stay while discussing family matters and eating meals together. He feels stimulated in a way he hasn’t for a long time, as he describes to his nervous daughter. He even finds love and is crowned the king of the care home during one splendid event.
Meanwhile, he communicates with Romulo about finding the client’s mother, Sofia. Sofia is a tough nut, refusing to entertain Sergio’s company; he might have come up too strong as a ladies’ man by telling her she was pretty and that he’d see her every day.
Sergio uses recording spectacles for his undercover operation. He then writes his thoughts in a journal and records Whatsapp voice messages to Romulo, which serve as a recurring motif in the film.
The James Bond spy-like feature is balanced with a look at what it means to have a family and the loneliness that can be encountered as an elderly person, even in an environment designed to provide care and support.
Gradually, however, The Mole Agent transforms into a more humanely contemplative account of life in a Chilean care home. As Sergio is one of the few men there, he is soon surrounded by swooning women. Suave and gentlemanly, he lets his most passionate admirer down gently, telling her that he still isn’t over the death of his beloved wife.
Once embedded at the home, Sergio also drives change. One fellow retiree falls in love with him. Another may also, even if suffering dementia. When a third woman misses her family, Sergio accesses photos of children for her. These people may be over 80, but they’re not done yet.
Sergio is coming to the end of his life searching for a new purpose and a new place in the world. Though he is there under false pretense, the connections he makes are real. So, too, are his empathetic understanding of the residents who have been largely abandoned and neglected by their relatives.
The premise of searching for abuse is dismissed, as it becomes clear that Sergio’s target is being well looked after, but she needs something that no care home can provide. Indeed. Romulo concludes that if the residents suffer, it is due to their loved ones who have forgotten or neglected them, living in a society that has no use for them.
While Sergio’s outlook is overall hopeful, his indictment of the families who abandon their elders, and of American society as one that favors youth and is defined by biases of ageism, is not.
Alberdi has built a filmography of documentaries about old folks – their lifestyles, their eccentricities. Her credits include three previous features, Los Niños, the Spanish Academy-nominated La Once, and The Lifesaver,” as well as several shorts including I’m Not from Here, about Josebe, a nursing home resident who believes she’s just moved from Spain to Chile when in reality she had made the journey 70 years earlier.
Many reasons motivated Alberdi to revisit themes of age and isolation: “One character 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 my film makes you realize there are so many ways to live old age.”
The rates of suicide among people in the 80-90 year age, out of loneliness and a sense of missing their former loved ones, are staggering. The documentary reminds us how easily society can forget its elders. Warm and funny, The Mole Agent offers audiences a poignant reminder that it’s never too late to forge new connections and embark on new adventures.
“I have been around many documentarians who say that they want to – and can – change the world,” says Alberdi, “I don’t know if documentaries are going to change the world, but I think they can plant questions in people’s minds, and in the mass media.”
The Mole Agent can change people’s preconceptions of retirement homes and of aging. It is not only an innovative film but one that can have an impact on the ‘pandemic of loneliness’ plaguing the elderly.