Whimsy nestles uneasily with despair in Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s hybrid documentary “The Mole Agent.” The film begins with a high concept. A woman hires private investigator Rómulo Aitken to look into the San Francisco Nursing Home near Santiago where her mother resides. In turn, Rómulo auditions elderly men to live in the home for a few months to see what conditions there are like. He decides on the 83-year-old Sergio Chamy. Sergio finds a retirement home where the population is almost all female.
Alberdi exaggerates her film’s spy movie elements for comic affect. Rómulo dresses in a trench coat, and his office is shot through window blinds. When Sergio first arrives at the nursing home, he wanders its halls, carrying out his sleuthing dutifully. But he can’t help befriending its occupants.
“The Mole Agent” mixes its tones queasily. That might stem from the circumstances under which it was made. Alberdi drew on her background working for private detectives. She approached a real nursing home about making a documentary there. But she did not tell them that Sergio was playing a character. They thought he was genuinely a new resident. The film crew shot during the week, and Sergio used cameras hidden in his glasses and pen on evenings and weekends as cover.
At first, “The Mole Agent” seems likely to play up its mood of pastiche, complete with James Bond-inspired score by Vincent van Warmerdam. But its intrigue soon becomes a method for a deadly serious investigation — not the one for which Rómulo has been hired, but a demonstration of the ugliness of nursing homes. The film’s first half hour can be summed by the sentiment, “Senior citizens are so cute! They’re also in danger of losing their intelligence and ability to move by themselves!”
The grounds of the retirement home are quite pretty. Alberdi offers close-ups of its flowers. The building itself is full of paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary. Pastel shades dominate. But none of this makes its inhabitants’ struggles any easier. Sergio has retained his wits and seems to be in fine physical shape. Quickly, he comes across bedridden women and a pile of walkers in the hallway. He meets Marta, who talks on the phone to a person pretending to be her mother and bluntly tells her how desperate she is.
It’s hard to resist Sergio’s charm. But he’s acting in a story whose exact mixture of fiction and documentary is hard to parse. As a detective, Rómulo looks too good to be true, down to his costume of suspenders over a white shirt. Alberdi has a writing credit, and some scenes do feel staged. (Was Sergio really crowned “King of the Nursing Home” at a party?) But Sergio is also incapable of a seamless performance, the women at the nursing home even less so. The artifice jostles uneasily against the unmistakable end-of-life moments Alberdi captures.
“The Mole Agent” arrives at a conclusion about the oppressiveness of nursing homes and the loneliness of many senior citizens that’s both predictable and laudable. They’ve proved to be deathtraps during COVID, even in countries with a more humane healthcare system than America’s. But many of the residents of the San Francisco Nursing Home are incapable of taking care of themselves. The cuteness of its early moments turns into something more akin to Dennis Lehane and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” except that Alberdi’s tone remains much lighter and, most importantly, old age isn’t a plot twist.
THE MOLE AGENT | Directed by Maite Alberdi | Gravitas Ventures | In Spanish with English subtitles | Starts streaming Sep. 1; widely available on streaming platforms
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