There’s an ongoing discussion regarding the authenticity of documentaries, especially those that claim to be completely authentic fly-on-the-wall, observational films (ED: The excellent Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets also in this arena lately). The premise of The Mole Agent, Maite Alberdi’s latest documentary, begins with a fairly contrived premise but what starts off as a covert look at the treatment of elderly people in care homes quickly evolves into something more profound.
In The Mole Agent, a Chilean private eye agency is hired by an unseen client to check on the care home where his/her mother resides, to ensure that the carers aren’t mistreating or stealing from her. To do this the agency need to recruit an elderly gentleman to go undercover, eventually settling on quiet, unassuming widower Sergio Chamy. Initially relishing the subterfuge, and throwing himself into his spy role, Sergio quickly becomes disillusioned with his job as he gets to know the residents better.
While the filmmakers may have set out to make a light-hearted film noir parody, once Chamy’s humanity and warmth towards the other residents becomes apparent, the film changes tone and turns into a touching, thoughtful meditation on ageing, mortality and the way the elderly are neglected by society. Initially enthralled by the spy gear he gets to use and the private eye lifestyle, Sergio begins to lose interest in his task and instead warms to his fellow residents, helping some of the more confused ones to deal with their situation. The scene where he tries to explain to a dementia sufferer that her children haven’t abandoned her, that she has just forgotten their visit, and that it’s okay to cry, is beautifully observed and poignant, while the lady who continually asks the nurses when her mother will be coming to collect her is desperately sad.
The recruitment process itself process is itself a commentary on the displacement of the elderly, albeit a lot more playful than later scenes. There’s a lot of fun to be had as the wannabe spies try to demonstrate their technical know how but at the same time there’s the social aspect of these intelligent, competent individuals who find themselves without a function in society – many of them say that they aren’t even considered for jobs due to their advanced years.
It’s not all bleak though in The Mole Agent, there’s a lot of comedy in the agency’s increasing frustration with the hapless Sergio and his rambling reports, and some genuinely heartwarming scenes – mainly featuring one lady who has a crush on Sergio and their obvious discomfort at being filmed, noticing boom mikes and generally getting annoyed. There are also poignant moments of peace amongst the residents – in a particularly touching scene one lady quotes poetry from memory, and as the conversation begins to flow in earnest we learn of the heartache and loneliness of the residents.
Sergio’s final report to the agency is beautifully written and moving but it does highlight my main problem with the film, which is the question of verisimilitude. It’s never clear exactly what is real and what has been constructed for the purposes of the film. Alberdi establishes early on that there is a documentary crew already operating in the care home but some of the story beats seem a tad too convenient to be completely authentic, added to which are the stylised early scenes showing Sergio getting into character. The line between what is real and what is artificial is constantly blurred, and this might be what prevented me from engaging with the film quite as much as I wanted to. Despite this, Sergio’s deepening relationship with his newfound friends is genuinely touching, and there is no denying the impact of the more heartfelt moments.
The Mole Agent is a slight but touching film, helped immeasurably by the irrepressibly lovable Sergio Chamy, who really provides the film’s heart. There are some incredibly touching moments, and the resolution, while bittersweet, is life affirming and poignant without being overly sentimental.