An octogenarian goes undercover in a nursing home in The Mole Agent, Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s enjoyably odd Oscar-nominated documentary. While attempting to unearth evidence of abuse, he discovers something different altogether.
Within the first few seconds of The Mole Agent, a large, framed photo of Scarface villain Tony Montana is shown hanging from a private detective’s office wall. As opening shots go, few in recent memory have been quite as misleading. What follows—an attentive, warm-hearted story spearheaded by a gentle, compassionate 83-year-old—could not be further from the average sweary, violent, cocaine-fuelled gangster odyssey.
A strikingly non-traditional documentary, Alberdi’s film is a gleeful riff on the traditional spy movie. Hired by the daughter of a local nursing home resident, Rómulo Aitken—a former Interpol agent turned private eye—sets about finding a suitable recruit to go undercover and document evidence of mistreatment. Step forward Sergio Chamy, a charming senior citizen whose unassuming demeanour trumps a limited technological skill-set; a neat spin on the conventional spy-in-training montage sees Chamy struggling to understand WhatsApp voice notes and FaceTime. As such he quickly becomes a hit with the care home residents, even if when equipped with the staples of movie espionage—glasses with cameras, pens with clandestine recording devices—his fumbled attempts to gather evidence make him more Pink Panther than James Bond.
But Alberdi’s cinematic nods are deliberate. That The Mole Agent frequently blurs the line between what is fact and what is fiction is entirely by design. Against the backdrop of heightened genre aesthetics—all high contrast lighting and Venetian blinds—Alberdi purposefully leaves us to ponder which elements of her film are truth, and which have been crafted for dramatic effect.
The results, however, are mixed. The early, good-natured fun, while amusing, fails to fully anchor a playful, high-concept premise that sways precariously between quirk and gimmick. The product is a documentary that feels at once endearing and frustrating: a whimsical story rarely developed beyond its initial set-up, and one that leaves several key questions unanswered—like, for instance, the daughter’s identity and whether her abuse claims are fictitious.
In the end, though, none of that really matters. As it unfurls, Alberdi’s film veers sharply between genres, becoming less about the discovery of resident maltreatment than about the lives of the residents themselves. Over the course of its taut 90-minute runtime, The Mole Agent sheds its narrative contrivances to reveal a more incisive, moving portrait of loneliness, isolation and intimacy. Chamy, by extension, assumes the role of the viewer: an observant bystander witnessing with quiet compassion the repetitive existences of people who have effectively been abandoned by their families. Shrewdly offsetting the film’s less-assured components, it’s a compelling tonal shift that—in the context of a global pandemic that has seen many elderly relatives cut off from loved ones—resonates with powerful, universal relevance.
Her blend of documentary and dramatic elements—much like Chamy and an iPhone 4—don’t always marry up, but Alberdi’s playful premise is imbued with plenty of heart. By the time The Mole Agent reaches its touching conclusion, even the most hardened of viewers will struggle not to be moved.
Words by George Nash
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