The Mole Agent is a difficult film to review, because – well, because I don’t want to give anything away. Not in terms of plot spoilers, because plot isn’t a key part of this film, really. What I don’t want to give away is its genre. Because one of the most interesting and lasting discussions to be had about Maite Alberdi’s film is around its slippery treatment of genre.
Ostensibly, The Mole Agent is a documentary, or perhaps a faux-documentary, about a proud, eighty-three-year-old man named Sergio (Sergio Chamy), who enters a nursing home in Chile as an undercover agent. His mission, handed to him by the private detective Rómulo (Rómulo Aitken), is to pose as a resident and gather evidence on the alleged mistreatment of an elderly woman.
With this premise established, I was gearing up for a searing exposé of neglect in an aged care setting. With the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety ongoing here in Australia, we’ve become quite familiar with confronting stories of neglect and even abuse in public and private aged care homes, and through at-home care, across the country. The pandemic has further exposed the flaws in our systems of care. And the style of the early stages of the film seems to position the audience to expect a tense investigative thriller – albeit one with an older-than-usual lead with serious determination slowed only a few technological issues. Indeed, a number of the hallmarks of the spy thriller are introduced early on, with hidden cameras in pens and spectacles, codenames that Sergio struggles to recall, and carefully mapped suspense.
And despite the self-reflexive gestures to the documentary nature of the film – shots with cameraman and boom microphone in the frame, the voice of the director soothing Sergio’s daughter’s concerns about the strange plan – this film plays very much like a smoothly scripted, quirky fiction. The mostly female residents of the home seem like well-drawn archetypes of characters familiar to anyone who’s had family members in a facility like this one; Marta at the front gate asking every visitor to “please take me out”, the ladies at the lunch table sizing Sergio up as a love interest (“he seems lucid!”) and the tragic, bewildered people who are losing their memories to dementia.
But a scripted fiction would likely have more of a distinct, developing plotline than this film does. There are a number of scenes in which Sergio earnestly investigates the home and its caretakers, trailing “the target” (Sonia) and filming her day-to-day life from humorously point-blank range with his hidden cameras; however, much of the film is invested in calm moments of interaction between Sergio and his new neighbours, his new friends. He politely rebuffs the lovelorn 25-year resident Bertita, gently telling her “I’m still mourning my wife”; he listens to Perdita’s startlingly beautiful poetry recitals; and he imagines reasons for why the families of many residents never visit them, trying to convince his new friends and himself that the reasons for their absences are motivated still by love. Some of these moments are hilarious, especially early scenes when residents come to terms with having a film crew in their midst, and those involving the cheeky, sticky-fingered Marta. Other moments, suffused with golden light, colour and music, are joyful assertions that life can still be lived well in old age. Still others are deeply poignant insights into loneliness and the pain caused by the loss of independent identity.
Sergio’s investigations uncover a range of notable issues with the facility, with individual residents, and with wider attitudes towards the elderly. And while his and the film’s conclusions seem a little mild, relative to some of the examples of ignorance and abuse in Australian aged care, they still deserve acknowledgement. Sergio wonders why Sonia’s daughter has hired a private investigator for an elaborate investigation, rather than just visiting herself; perhaps, he suggests, “loneliness is the worst thing about this place.”
It’s not the most hard-hitting documentary I’ve seen recently, or the most transformative. The conclusion left me feeling a little disappointed and deflated. But in its unusual, quirky approach and creative treatment of the sort of place that many of us may find ourselves living in as we age, it gently prods its audience to re-consider how they value the older people in their lives, and how they would like to be valued themselves.
You can decide for yourself how much is carefully scripted documentary, how much is naturalistic observation, and how much may be fiction; you can also decide how much you think their balance in this film matters, ethically and artistically. What I’ve decided is that The Mole Agent is a film worth watching, even just for Sergio’s endearing wobbly filming and his earnest daily spy reports.
The Mole Agent runs from Monday 1 to Sunday 7 February at Somerville Amphitheatre.
Words by Riley Faulds.
Image courtesy of Perth Festival.