Academy Award-nominated documentary The Mole Agent follows an elderly amateur sleuth’s compassionate intervention in a nursing home
“ELDERLY MALE NEEDED,” ran the non-descript classified ad in the newspaper. “Independent, discrete, and competent with technology.”
Sergio Chamy, 83 – father of three, grandfather of five, retired and recently widowed – doesn’t quite tick all those boxes: at the job interview, he struggles with the technical component, visibly unfamiliar with the camera function on his flip phone. “It’s not working,” he announces as he turns the device over in his hands – surprised when the shutter sound goes off, proving otherwise.
But Sergio’s competition on that front is far from stiff, and his sweet but canny nature lands him the job – as a “mole agent”, that is, tasked with infiltrating an aged care facility on behalf of a PI. And, by extension, he lands the role of leading man in Maite Alberdi’s Academy Award-nominated “documentary film noir”, which tracks his unconventional investigation with a mix of tenderness and bemusement.
The reasons Sergio gives for his interest in the undercover gig – it’s a means of alleviating the monotony of retirement, and a distraction from the grief of his wife’s passing – echo those given by Robert De Niro in The Intern (2015), as a senior citizen who charms the staff at a schmick start-up with his quiet efficiency.
The same cannot be said of Sergio, however.
In an office that’s been carefully styled to evoke hard-boiled tradition, where the light filters in moodily through venetian blinds, Private Investigator Rómulo Aitken attempts to school his new employee in the operation of an iPhone, a camera pen, and a pair of “spy glasses” – the former Chilean Interpol agent playing a slightly exasperated Q to Sergio’s bumbling, octogenarian Bond – with demonstrably limited success.
(Rómulo’s choice of decorative workplace touches – including a pair of novelty license plates emblazoned AL CAPONE and ALCATRAZ, and a framed poster of an American dollar bill with Tony Montana in place of a president – strike me as sending out mixed signals – but that’s neither here nor there.)
The hokeyness of the set-up belies, and it could be argued trivialises, the potentially harrowing nature of Sergio’s mission: he’s to determine whether elder abuse is taking place at the facility, and specifically whether the staff are beating or stealing from one woman in particular, being the mother of Rómulo’s client.
Seen from another perspective, the tone of these opening sequences functions as pre-emptive assurance that no abuse will be discovered, and a hint – fine, a clue – that the case will turn out to be something of a red herring when it comes to the documentary’s true concerns.
What’s ultimately of interest to Sergio, and Alberdi alongside him, is the marginalisation of the elderly – by their own families, and by society at large. (Still, a topic hardly suited to the caper contrivance.)
Despite the generally convivial atmosphere at the sunny San Francisco Nursing Home in the city of El Monte, Chile, feelings of loneliness and abandonment seem to be a fact of daily life for the predominantly female residents.
Little wonder they are drawn to Sergio, a dapper new presence.
Excited chatter ripples through the lunchroom on his first day: “I think he looks very gentlemanly,” asserts one woman. “He looks lucid,” observes another. Unaware of his ulterior motives, they confide in him, even venture to flirt with him.
Not so Alberdi and her small crew – who are on site on the pretence of making a documentary about the home itself. (A solid alibi, given that Alberdi has tackled issues of ageing in two earlier films: the short I’m Not From Here, from 2016, and La Once, from 2014.)
At first, the residents regard her equipment with suspicion. Dramatic irony adds to the comedy of a sequence in which some of the women whisper amongst themselves about being spied on, sneaking furtive glances at the boom mic hovering above their heads.
Over time, however, they become unselfconscious in the presence of the camera, allowing it to bear witness to some painfully intimate moments. Expressions of longing for the love of a partner never found, or an absent mother, prove haunting – even if they might feel a little unearned to a viewer who hasn’t forgotten the film’s duplicitous premise.
Just as well, at a certain point into the proceedings Sergio himself seems to forget what it is he’s there to do. He’s evidently more interested in assisting to mediate, and ameliorate, the everyday dramas in the home than in straight sleuthing.
The film shifts focus with him – increasingly functioning as the observational documentary Alberdi was originally only pretending to make.
Having deduced (via his own, less-than-discrete methods) that no ill-treatment has come to the target – Rómulo’s client’s mother – Sergio begins to make off-duty inquiries into the wellbeing of other residents.
He checks the visitor log for Rubira, whose Alzheimer’s means that she’s unsure if her children have come to see her. The discovery that she’s in fact had no visitors prompts him – in one of his daily missives to Rómulo, narrated over lightly mawkish piano – to request pictures of her family to share with her. (These arrive, rather bizarrely, in a folder stamped ‘CONFIDENTIAL’.)
If Sergio never succeeds in mastering his gadgetry (as the occasional snippet of jerky footage from his spy glasses reminds viewers) then he nevertheless proves a keen and deeply compassionate observer – but maybe Alberdi didn’t need a private investigator to figure that out.
The Mole Agent is in cinemas from June 17.