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Review: The Mole Agent

April 23, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

2021 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature

A dark horse contender for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, The Mole Agent is a low-key charmer of a film that follows an elderly gentleman in Chile who is hired to go undercover in a nursing home to investigate suspected mistreatment, with somewhat unexpectedly poignant results.

When a woman suspects that her mother is being abused by staff members at a nursing home in Chile, she reaches out to a private detective who places a casting call in a newspaper seeking a senior to help with the investigation. Enter Sergio Chamy, a charming and well-dressed octogenarian who is brought in to infiltrate the retirement home.

Sergio’s mission is to live at the home as a resident for three months, keeping his identity a secret, even from the staff, and recording and reporting back what he sees. What he discovers is a pandemic of loneliness. Sergio ends up being a force for good at the nursing home and is beloved by both residents and staff, with the other seniors, particularly the women, taking a liking to him as he patiently listens to their problems and spends time with them.

There is gentle humour here, with Sergio having to be taught how to use the spy cameras embedded in his glasses and pen, as well as how to use a smartphone. But The Mole Agent actually becomes quite tender and bittersweet as it goes along, especially as Serigo’s three month investigation nears its end and he will have to say goodbye. The unique circumstances around his presence at the home also raises some interesting ethical questions as well, especially when one of the ladies starts to develop genuine romantic feelings for him that he is obviously unable to reciprocate.

One of the most important themes of The Mole Agent has to do with how we interact with the elderly, especially those with dementia. In one touching example, an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s, who keeps crying for her dead mother, is comforted by a female staff member who speaks to her on the phone from the other room, playing the role of her mother. The film unfolds in a purely observational way, the camera simply capturing the interactions between Sergio and the other residents.

It’s directed by Maite Alberdi, whose previous documentary The Grown-Ups, which focused on a group of adults with Down syndrome at a Chilean school for people with disabilities, unfolded in a similar fly-on-the-wall way, simply following the subjects as they went about their lives. In The Mole Agent, this approach causes the film to feel like somewhat of a cross between documentary and narrative feature, and we do wonder at times if the presence of the camera crew is impacting any of what we see. But the film largely works as a candid portrait of life in a nursing home, capturing many heartfelt moments.

The result is a delightful and also very poignant documentary, that really shows the need for connection amongst seniors in long term care homes. Sergio himself is a very likeable subject, and the themes of aging and elder care are quite resonant, especially at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the many flaws in the long term care system.

The Mole Agent is now available to rent on selected digital platforms.

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