The Mole Agent is as heart-warming as it is heart-wrenching, in its moral investigation of what is the most common abuse in Chilean care homes.
The Mole Agent is a delightful film, which with every turn of the camera manages to highlight a whole other narrative than the premise we were promised as viewers. It is a clever interplay between documentary and fiction, film noir and detective, and heart-warming and heart-wrenching. Director Maite Alberdi set out to explore what happens to our elderly once we relinquish their care to the many catholic care homes that Santiago, Chile is rich of. A moral and ethical question which is decanted in an entertaining, unexpected spy noir, personified by the dapper and adorable Sergio Chamy. It is no wonder that The Mole Agent has been named as one of the best documentaries of 2020 by many and even recently has been announced to be Chile’s submission to the 93d Academy Awards in the category of Best International Film.
With the absence of a James Bond film for probably weeks to come, I can assure you that El Agente Topo, the film’s original title in Spanish, shall be an excellently charming alternative to get that dapper spy-action fix. Don’t be misguided by the characters’ old age, as the film has no less than three deaths, several robberies, various swooning ladies, and even a Casanova crowned king. Though the only real danger our spy faces is an unwanted marriage proposal, Chamy’s stumbling antics account for plenty of frightening and thrilling moments – will our spy be discovered or not? Though he might lose track of his original mission, it is what he discovers along the way that is of even greater importance.
It all starts with an innocent ad in the local newspaper – private eye Romulo Aitken is in a bit of a jam. He has been charged by a Mrs. Perez to investigate if her mother (who is in a care home) is treated well. Therefore, he is looking to hire a male assistant in his eighties or nineties who has excellent knowledge of modern technology. Cue a hilarious, though slightly patronising, compilation of interviews with elderly men proudly showing of their (lack of) technological agility. 83-year-old Sergio Chamy is the lucky man who gets the job. He will become the newest undercover inhabitant of the San Francisco care home. Armed with hidden cameras in his brand new spy-glasses and spy-pen, he is tasked to send Romulo daily updates via FaceTime, send Whatsapp voice messages, and even communicate in an intricate code-language. You can probably guess how well this will all go.
Three weeks before Chamy’s arrival, though unbeknownst by the viewer, a camera crew is already present at the care home to record how well new inhabitants integrate with the other residents. This also allows the viewer to be both a fly on the wall observing Chamy’s spy-abilities, as well as being immersed in Chamy’s world through the insertion of footage from his spy-glasses and -pen. It creates the interesting effect of watching a documentary of a documentary. His first task when arrives: to locate the target. Not an easy feat when he finds all the women look exactly the same. We follow him as he strikes up conversations with various women, who over the course of his 3-month stay will become his friends and family.
The fact that he is lucid and autonomous seems to be doing very well with the ladies. It might be his caring bearing and quiet confidence, but most of all it is probably his sense of purpose, the feeling of being useful to the community, of having a task at hand, that makes him a magnet for the forty women resident at the care home (versus only four men). This is something that strongly comes to the fore as well during the job interviews. The Mole Agent certainly makes clear that the world would be a better place if we still had assignments to do in our old age. Through Chamy’s conversations with the women at the care home we learn that their biggest fear is to be left behind to become a burden instead of an asset. When Chamy goes to investigate, he finds out that most women in the care home haven’t had a visitor in a year.
Ironically, though all women are very willing to chat him up, it is the elusive Sonia Perez (whom he was tasked to observe) who simply refuses to engage with him. With the mission practically undoable, it becomes clear quite early on that there is a different plot than the premise going on. As Chamy becomes more and more engaged with the residents and is fully absorbed in the care home’s social life, we hear (and see) poignant scenes of loneliness. Never using the talking-head format common in documentaries, The Mole Agent toes the line between fiction and documentary. It is a stylish collage of observations poured into a film noir cinematography. The deceptive nature of the film even goes so far as to make me think it might just all be an elaborate scheme to make sure Sergio Chamy is easily transitioned into the care home.
However, ultimately, the documentary could not have come at a better time than this day and age. With retirement homes having become hotbeds of infection over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic and many homes who haven’t been able to have visitor in months, it shows how devastatingly cruel life can be in your old age. It shows that though families might show how much they care about their elderly through the hiring of an investigator to make sure they’re well, they never actually care to check in person if their loved ones are doing okay. Sonia Perez’s daughter (the one who requested the investigation) has never visited her mother herself during the time Chamy was there. Over the course of 84 minutes, it becomes painfully obvious to both the viewer and to our spy, that the only real abuse happening in care homes, is neglect.
The Mole Agent debuts on Monday, January 25, 2021 on PBS at 9:30 p.m. ET (check local listings) and at pov.org as part of the program’s 33rd season. The film will also be available to stream for free at pov.org until February 8, 2021.
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