Both a charming story about a most unlikely spy and a poignant meditation on the loneliness of growing old, Maite Alberdi’s engaging film The Mole Agent isn’t your everyday documentary. Like the Chilean filmmaker’s previous films (including Tea Time and The Grown-Ups), it has its own rhythm and style, feeling like a hybrid of nonfiction and carefully observed drama.
The Mole Agent centers on Sergio, a dapper widower from Santiago who’s hired by a private detective to go undercover at the San Francisco Nursing Home. The detective’s client’s mother lives there, and she’s concerned that her mother isn’t receiving adequate care. So Sergio moves in and starts investigating. In the process, he endears himself to the home’s staff and occupants. The resident women, especially, take quite a shine to him — he’s polite and attentive, he’s well-dressed, and he has all of his faculties; he’s the total package.
As Sergio does his best to figure out the inner workings of the nursing home — poking, prying, and making surreptitious recordings — he realizes that the only thing most of the residents aren’t getting enough of is the care of their families. When The Mole Agent shifts its focus from Sergio’s would-be detective antics to his quiet conversations with his new friends, who share poetry, memories, musings, and more, it serves as a valuable reminder of the need to respect and cherish our elders. Sergio’s empathy and concern for them are moving, and his experience helps him appreciate his own family all the more.
Several of The Mole Agent’s scenes may leave you wondering just how likely it was that Alberdi happened to be in just the right place at the right time to capture a whispered conversation or a hurried exchange. And it’s true that the film doesn’t feel as objective as many documentaries strive to be. But it all plays into her unique filmmaking style, and there’s no question but that it tells a memorable story with a meaningful message. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nikki Baughan: Writer/director Maite Alberdi serves up a bittersweet slice of octagenarian life in a Chilean residential home in her latest film, which effectively blends documentary and drama to bring home its touching message. While audiences may wonder which elements of this film — which sees charismatic 83-year-old Sergio Chamy hired by a private detective to go undercover at a local home for the elderly, the camera following him every step of the way — have been set up for dramatic effect, the truth of the endeavor shines through. With many of the residents having been effectively abandoned by their families, we see how they have created a network of support and friendship amongst themselves. And while the film’s tone may lean towards the whimsical at times — the tone is often reminiscent of 1960s James Bond espionage, with the dapper Sergio attracting the (unwanted) attention of many of the ladies — it does nothing to dampen the authentic, universal emotions at its heart.
Susan Wloszczyna: An elderly Chilean man, Sergio, spots a want ad in a newspaper that requires applicants to be a male retiree between the ages of 80 and 90 as a 007-like theme plays in the background. They need to be “independent, discrete and competent with technology.” Hence, that is the way Maite Alberdi’s hybrid doc/secret-agent thriller The Mole Agent kicks off. Read full review.
Leslie Combemale Director Maite Alberdi’s creative, captivating new film The Mole Agent feels like a rather slow narrative feature, in which not enough happens, until you remember it’s a documentary. Alberdi’s hybridization of staid drama and cinema vérité makes for poignant, intense viewing. The film will stay with you longterm, both as a bit of melancholia and as a cautionary tale to show compassion and attention to our aging loved ones. Read full review.
Loren King Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s genre-bending The Mole Agent is a portrait of advanced age unlike any I’ve seen. The filmmaker deftly mixes documentary with spy thriller, especially with its James Bond-style score, for a tongue in cheek tale that quickly gives way to a poignant character study. Sergio is a dapper 83-year-old widower hired by a private investigator to infiltrate a Santiago nursing home and spy on the operation. What ensues is, at first, a realistic and gently comical look at Sergio’s serious attempts to document what he finds by getting to know the other residents. But gradually the film becomes more: a delicate and touching meditation on loneliness and how elders are treated as disposable. I had a hard time believing that The Mole Agent was purely a documentary but the film’s sharp observations of day to day life in the nursing home reveal a powerful, emotional authenticity.
Pam Grady: Octogenarian Sergio is a hit with the ladies at the Chilean nursing home from the moment he enters. He is charming, thoughtful, a good listener, and dapper. What neither the women nor the people running the place know is that Sergio is also a spy, sent by a detective agency on behalf of a patient’s daughter to investigate the old woman’s treatment. Maite Alberdi’s clever documentary is ingenious in the way it uses espionage tropes to uncover something both mundane and emotionally devastating: the way some families abandon their members to care homes. This one seems run well enough and its manager seems to care, but she is not a substitute for a daughter, a son, a grandchild. Sergio, whose own children and grandchildren dote on him, diagnoses the scandal at the institution as not one of crime or official misconduct, but loneliness. Watching The Mole Agent is a bittersweet experience. Sergio, his sweet nature, his misadventures with technology, and his astute observations of a constricted world are a delight to behold, but the reality of the world he describes is heartbreaking.
MaryAnn Johanson An unusual combination of clever and touching, this is a film that sneaks up on your heartstrings with exactly the panache its titular protagonist lacks; his charming but bumbling spycraft is somewhat less stealthy. Maite Alberdi looks at modern elders with a tender eye, and at how modern elderhood is treated with a more caustic one. Loneliness and listlessness howl at the center of her portrait of a Santiago nursing home, with one potential balm lurking in plain sight: her mole agent has ‘purpose,’ however small and perhaps even ultimately superfluous, but it gives his life a shape and his days a motivation that his new nursing-home friends lack. Alberdi’s eye is perceptive and poignant.
Kathia Woods There is something fun when a documentary uses humor to up its appeal to the public. The Mole Agent accomplishes that goal. Chilean Director Maite Alberdi’s fun character experiment disguised as a high-end thriller tells the story of an 83-year-old widower that infiltrates a nursing home for a detective. Naturally, it’s the beginning of a disaster filled with laughter and loving results. This is what makes this film a must see. Sergio is not a superspy, but he is willing to go on this journey. In the end he uncovers the biggest crime committed is the lack of empathy for the elderly.
Jennifer Merin The Mole Agent is the latest documentary from Maite Alberdi, and another fine expression of the Chilean filmmaker’s thematic concerns and hybrid style. The film is a docu spy drama that follows an elderly gentleman, Sergio, who’s hired to live in nursing home so he can spy of the caregivers in charge of a private detective’s client’s beloved mother to make sure she’s being treated right. Sure, the spy set up was a ruse in real life and it is a dramatic ploy in the documentary — but the film’s conceit is so compelling and its central characters are so appealing that even those who are diehards — count me among them — for investigative authenticity in observational documentaries can’t resist engagement, while those who are most taken with this nonfic’s engaging storyline may find themselves in speculation about whether Richard Jenkins or Jim Broadbent might make a more convincing Sergio in the (yet to be scripted and green lit) narrative version of The Mole Agent.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s elderly spy documentary is so compelling, audiences will wonder if it’s really a documentary or a scripted film pretending to be a documentary. It’s so rare for octogenarians to be on screen period, so for an entire film to focus on the elderly without patronizing them is refreshing. The protagonist of the movie, Sergio, is an 80-something widower who has been hired by Romulo, a private investigator, to infiltrate a nursing home on behalf of the PI’s client, who suspects her mother is being abused in the facility. Sergio’s mission is to find the client’s mother, Sonia, and report back to Romulo about how she’s doing. Meanwhile, the film crew is pretending to shoot a documentary about the home. The charm of the documentary is how Sergio writes and records detailed entries of all the residents he befriends as he patiently scopes out Señora Sonia, who’s somewhat of an antisocial recluse. Naturally, the presence of the lucid older gentleman attracts all sorts of amusing attention from the single and widowed women residents. There’s so much to like about the film, it’s no wonder it was a Sundance crowd-pleaser.
Cate Marquis Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi’s The Mole Agent is a clever, entertaining hybrid of documentary and drama, in which Sergio, an 83-year-old recent widower, is hired by a private detective to move into a nursing home for three months as an undercover agent – a mole – to investigate whether the staff is treating his client’s mother Sonia well. Funny, heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking, we follow our spy as he struggles with the tech he needs to use for his mission and as he finds immerses himself in the lives of the various characters in the nursing home, in this touching, insightful film delight.
Title: The Mole Agent
Directors: Maite Alberdi
Release Date: September 1, 2020
Running Time: 84 minutes
Language: Spanish, with English subtitles
Screenwriter: Maite Alberdi
Distribution Company: PBS
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Kathia Woods
Edited by Jennifer Merin