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BY STEVE ERICKSON
Whimsy nestles uncomfortably 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 investigate the San Francisco nursing home near Santiago where her mother resides. In turn, Rómulo interviews elderly men to live in the house for a few months to see what the conditions are there. He decides on Sergio Chamy, 83 years old. Sergio finds a retirement home where the population is almost entirely female.
Alberdi exaggerates the spy movie elements of his film for comedic effect. Rómulo dresses in a trench coat and his office is filmed through the blinds. When Sergio first arrives at the nursing home, he wanders its hallways, conscientiously carrying out his investigation. But it can’t help but befriend its occupants.
“The Mole Agent” clumsily mixes its tones. It could be from the circumstances in which it was made. Alberdi drew on his experience working for private investigators. She approached a real retirement home to make a documentary. But she didn’t tell them Sergio was playing a character. They thought he was truly a new resident. The camera crew filmed during the week, and Sergio used cameras hidden in his glasses and pen in the evenings and on weekends for cover.
At first, “The Mole Agent” seems likely to play on its pastiche mood, with a James Bond-inspired score by Vincent van Warmerdam. But his plot soon becomes a method for a serious and deadly investigation – not the one for which Rómulo was hired, but a demonstration of the ugliness of nursing homes. The first half hour of the film can be summed up by the feeling: “Seniors are so cute! They also risk losing their intelligence and their ability to move around on their own! “
The gardens of the retirement home are quite pretty. Alberdi offers close-ups of his flowers. The building itself is full of paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary. Pastel tones dominate. But none of this facilitates the struggles of its inhabitants. Sergio has retained his mind and appears to be in good physical shape. Quickly, he comes across bedridden women and a bunch of walkers in the hallway. He meets Marta, who is talking on the phone to someone pretending to be his mother and bluntly tells her how desperate she is.
It’s hard to resist Sergio’s charm. But he plays in a story whose exact blend of fiction and documentary is difficult to analyze. As a detective, Rómulo looks too good to be true, right down to his suspenders suit over a white shirt. Alberdi has writing credit and some scenes appear to be staged. (Was Sergio really crowned ‘king of the nursing home’ at a party?) But Sergio is also incapable of a flawless performance, the women of the nursing home even less so. The firework clashes with concern at the unmistakable end-of-life moments captured by Alberdi.
“The Mole Agent” comes to a conclusion about the oppression of nursing homes and the loneliness of many older people that is both predictable and commendable. They have proven to be death traps during COVID, even in countries with more humane healthcare systems than the United States. But many residents of the San Francisco nursing home are unable to take care of themselves. The cuteness of his early moments transforms 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 twist.
THE TAUPE AGENT | Directed by Maite Alberdi | Gravitas companies | In Spanish with English subtitles | Starts broadcasting on September 1; widely available on streaming platforms
This story first appeared on our sister post gaycitynews.com.