Novelists have always enjoyed passing off fantasy as if it were reality but documentary makers seem to take a special pleasure in making fact resemble fiction. There have been numerous examples in recent years of documentaries telling stories that seemed too bizarre to be true, framed with all the stock devices of a mystery or a thriller. In the Netflix series, Room 2806, for instance, which looks at the sex scandal that brought down Dominic Strauss-Kahn veers one way then the other as new details are progressively brought to light. In Errol Morris’s Wormwood we are drawn into a conspiracy that keeps getting darker from one scene to the next.
Maite Alberdi’s The Mole Agent, which was nominated for an Academy Award this year for Best Documentary Feature (it lost out to My Octopus Teacher) is not packed with drama and mystery, but it has a pervasive feeling of unreality. The premise of the movie is so bizarre we can hardly believe it’s not staged, even though most of the characters could never be imagined as actors. It’s more comical than mysterious, but the humour has a melancholy aspect.
The setting is a city in Chile, the protagonist is 83-year old Sergio Chalmy, who responds an advertisement calling for a man between 80 and 90 to do a job for an investigation agency. There are quite a few contenders for the post which offers a way out of the boredom of old age and retirement. In the interviews most of the candidates demonstrate exactly why they shouldn’t be working any more.
The chosen one is Sergio, a small, dapper widower who is inducted into his new role by the gruff detective, Rómulo. He will be required to enter an old people’s home as an undercover agent – a mole – to observe one of the inmates and find out if she is being mistreated or neglected.
To help him fulfil his mission Sergio is given a range of special gadgets, just like James Bond being fitted out by Q. These include a pen which is also a camera and a set of glasses that can record sound and video while he is wearing them. He’ll be required to make regular WhatsApp reports to Rómulo on the mobile phone – a device he has some difficulty mastering.
With his family’s co-operation Sergio enters the aged care home and begins to scope out the territory. The reason we can follow his investigations is that the filmmakers are supposedly making a documentary in the home, even if their main purpose is to record Sergio. The ruse allows an intimate, step-by-step account of his progress.
Sergio takes his work seriously and proceeds to acquaint himself with the other inmates. As he is one of only four men, along with 40 women, he spends much of his time talking with the ladies. He may be gathering evidence which he dutifully writes down in a notebook, but his readiness to chat, and ask these women questions about their lives, is much appreciated. Reserved, charming and far more lucid than any of the other males, he soon becomes the most popular person in the facility.
Sergio has no trouble locating the “target”, an old lady named Sonia, but finds she is demented and not communicative with anyone. Instead he embarks on a detailed examination of the home and its inhabitants. He solves a little mystery concerning the disappearance of personal items, peeks into the visitors’ book, and checks out those patients who are too ill or mentally decayed to leave their rooms. It’s clear Rómulo picked the right man for the job!
Meanwhile Sergio’s surging popularity knows no bounds. He is crowned “king” of the home, which means he has to don a shiny party crown and dance around with his many admirers. Berta, a lifelong virgin, tells Sergio she loves him and wants to get married. Lots of others say they love him too. Sergio protests he is still mourning his late wife and is not ready for a new commitment.
It’s clear his sympathies lie with Petita, who writes very competent poetry (Sergio likes the fact that it rhymes); and Rubira, a sweet-natured woman who retains the remnants of her past beauty, even though her memory is developing terrible gaps. He has endless patience for Marta, who has reverted to childhood and keeps talking about her mother. Upon learning that many of the inmates rarely get a visit from their relatives Sergio informs Rómulo the biggest problem for these old people is loneliness.
The Mole Agent often feels like a geriatric comedy or a low-key satire on the profession of private eye. The shadows of Rómulo’s Venetian blinds add a touch of film noir to Sergio’s induction, and there are small moments of suspense as our hero pokes around in other people’s rooms. But at no stage does it ever seem that Sergio is in danger of being sprung. It’s clear nobody would ever believe he’s a secret agent.
The truly magical part of this film is that beneath the surface comedy we are learning a lot about what life is like in such a place. Judging by what we’ve heard from a Royal Commission in Australia this Chilean aged care home is a huge advance on many similar institutions. The staff are cheerful and attentive, the residents get on with each other well enough. But it’s still a kind of a prison which senile inmates can never leave. There’s no end of sickness, sadness and confusion as the old ladies sit around waiting for a visit from their family members, or death. It’s a toss-up as to which arrives first.
Despite his bottomless reserves of sympathy Sergio is chilled by the months he remains in the home, pursuing a mission he finds increasingly futile. There’s a cold misery here that saturates the soul. All the inmates who retain their wits share a feeling that they have become surplus to requirements, no longer loved by those to whom they have devoted their lives. These are Sergio’s most telling observations. He may have entered the home as a spy but he emerges with a disturbing new wisdom about what it means to grow old.
The Mole Agent
Written & directed by Maite Alberdi
Starring Sergio Chamy, Rómulo Aitken, Marta Olivares, Berta Ureta, Zoila Gonzalez, Petronica Abarca, Rubira Olivares
rated G, 84 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 26 June, 2021