The Chilean director Maite Alberdi makes warm, witty, empathetic, fly-on-the-wall documentaries, whose subjects are always surprising.
Lifeguard, her first, was about a lifeguard working on the most dangerous beach in Chile, who was actually afraid of water. Tea Time sat in with a group of elderly female friends who had been meeting for monthly tea parties for over 60 years. And The Grown-Ups followed the 40-something “pupils” of a private school for people with Down’s Syndrome, as they navigated love, ambition and the desperate desire to be independent.
And now comes The Mole Agent, whose title is both accurate and misleading. On one level, yes, it’s about a mole, a man who goes undercover to get the dirt on a nursing home; but it’s really about the lonely, isolated reality of many of the people who live in such establishments, who have been effectively abandoned by their families. The sum is immensely charming, complex and highly effective.
Despite its underlying seriousness, it really is wacky. The private investigator Rómulo has been hired by a woman who believes that her mother is being “mistreated, robbed, beaten” inside the San Francisco Nursing Home. Rómulo’s plan is to hire an elderly man to become resident for three months and act as his eyes and ears.
The interviews are a hoot, as a stream of old fellas attempt to prove their mettle with smart phones and the internet, while assuring Rómulo that they would have no problem “snitching on the old folks.”
The recently widowed 83-year-old Sergio gets the job (partly because “he looks lucid”), telling his own, caring daughter that it will offer him an opportunity to get out of the house, stop moping and rediscover his old self. Rómulo gives him his “spy glasses” and pen, both with hidden cameras, and an array of code words for their communications that poor Sergio can’t remember. Then, accompanied by his daughter and “favourite godson” Rómulo, Sergio checks in.
Alberdi and her crew have already approached the nursing home, with a view to making a documentary and the intention to focus on the next new arrival – who just happens to be Sergio. The pieces are in place for an intriguing few months.
Given that the place has 40 female residents and just four men, there’s room for a newcomer to make a splash, and the dapper, alert, and incredibly sweet Sergio is an instant hit with the ladies. He befriends them all, including one who actively wants him as her future husband, another who’s a passionate poetess, a woman with a failing memory who speaks movingly of her family no longer caring, and one who’s completely scatty but becomes a hilarious, good-natured sidekick.
Sergio turns out to be both a diligent spy – watching, eavesdropping, making copious notes and sending detailed voice messages to Rómulo every night – and a genuinely considerate and wise counsellor to his new friends. Ironically, the only woman he can’t charm is his ‘target’, the woman supposedly being abused, Sonya.
If this were a fictional comedy, it couldn’t have been better scripted. While Sergio spies, Alberdi has a lot of fun following him around, while a glockenspiel riff on The Pink Panther plays on her soundtrack.
Of course, it’s hard to escape the ethical conundrum here: just like Sergio, Alberdi is not being entirely honest with the home, withholding her complicity in the old man’s true purpose. But, unlike Rómulo’s, the director’s intentions are not to expose malfeasance. The genesis for the project was Alberdi’s interest in private detectives; while working for a few months as a PI’s assistant, she realised that the cases were less interesting than the clients themselves and a seemingly growing trend for snooping on friends, colleagues, loved ones.
This turns out to be the increasingly evident subtext of this story. Sergio doesn’t need the sourly insular Sonya’s input to realise the truth of the matter, that the problem isn’t the home, which seems kinda dreamy, with its hairdo days, gym classes, parties and celebrations, but possibly the client herself – who like so many relatives of these lonely residents, is conspicuous by her absence.
As the lovely octogenarian with a lifetime of love and wisdom draws his conclusions, we’re drawn into the beguiling spell of a deeply compassionate film.
This review first appeared in The Arts Desk