April 19, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Maite Alberdi
Spanish with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in San Francisco, Chile, the documentary film “The Mole Agent” features an all-Chilean group of people who are connected in some way the San Francisco Nursing Home.
Culture Clash: A widower in his 80s is hired to be a spy in the nursing home to find out if there is abuse or neglect in this residential facility.
Culture Audience: “The Mole Agent” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in non-fiction stories about life in retirement homes, even if some of the movie’s scenes look very staged and contrived.
“The Mole Agent” offers an entertaining and emotionally moving portrait of humanity in a Chilean retirement home. However, the “spy” aspect of the story seems as contrived and cutesy as some of the documentary’s scenes. There are several parts of the movie that look more like a scripted dramedy instead of a genuine cinéma vérité documentary. But if viewers are willing to enjoy the ride, they’ll be charmed by the people in the movie and the film’s overall life-affirming messages.
Directed by Maite Alberdi, “The Mole Agent” takes place primarily at the San Francisco Retirement Home in San Francisco, Chile. It’s a living facility that houses about 50 to 60 people (mostly women), and almost all the residents are over the age of 70. It’s here that an “undercover” investigation takes place that serves as the basis of this movie.
In the beginning of “The Mole Agent,” it’s explained that a daughter of one of the retirement home’s residents wants to investigate the retirement home to see if there is any secret abuse and neglect taking place there. How does it get investigated? An elderly man is recruited from the public to check into the facility as a resident for three months.
The movie shows the newspaper ad that was placed to look for this would-be spy or “mole agent.” The description reads: “Elderly male needed, retired between 80 and 90 years old, independent, discreet and competent with technology.” A man identified as Rómulo Aitken is shown interviewing some job applicants.
Is Aitken a private investigator? An actor? The movie never says, but he has the role of hiring and training the person who gets the job. There’s a montage of elderly men being interviewed to comical effect. When they’re told what the nature of the job is, they don’t seem to have a problem with spying, but a few have a problem with the technology requirement of the job. One man, whether he knows it or not, disqualifies himself when he says that he thinks the Internet is useless.
The person who ends up getting hired is an affable 83-year-old widower from Santiago named Sergio Chamy. He explains that his wife died a few months earlier and he’s an independent person who doesn’t have to consult anyone about where he wants to live. “I’m the one who makes decisions about myself,” Chamy says.
After he’s hired, there are the inevitable scenes played for laughs of Aitken showing the technology-deficient Chamy how to use FaceTime and WhatsApp on an iPhone. This newly appointed “spy” is also given a pair of eyeglasses that are equipped with a surveillance camera. Some of the movie’s scenes include footage taken from these spy eyeglasses.
And he’s even given a magnifying glass, as if the filmmakers want to make him look like a Sherlock Holmes type of character. Chamy actually never needs to use the magnifying glass at the retirement home, but it’s amusing and eye-catching to see him test out the magnifying glass. There are several scenes like this in the movie that seem staged for optics, rather than chronicling any real detective work.
Before he leaves to check into the retirement home, Chamy and his adult daughter Dalal meet with Aitken to get any questions answered. Dalal is concerned about the legalities of what her father is doing, but Aitken assures her that the filmmaking crew has permission to film in the retirement home. Aitken tells them that the filmmakers have told the retirement home that they are making a documentary about Chamy. However, based on the level of access that the filmmaking crew had in several private rooms of other residents, it seems pretty obvious that certain people who worked at the retirement home knew exactly what this documentary was about ahead of time.
During this meeting, Chamy reassures his daughter that checking into this retirement home is something he wants to do because it will help him take his mind off of his widower grief. He says that this investigative assignment will be “mentally tiring but mentally liberating,” because he won’t be “thinking of your mother all the time.” He and Dalal get a little bit choked up with emotions when he mentions the late matriarch of the family.
Chamy is told that the client’s mother in the retirement home is named Sonia Perez. He is tasked with keeping an eye on Perez to see if she is being treated well. The residential rooms have sheets of paper taped to the entry doors with the name of each person who lives in the room. And so, with “Pink Panther”-like music as part of the movie’s score (which was written by Vincent van Warmerdam), the movie shows Chamy going from room to room, looking for Sonia Perez’s name on the front of doors.
“The Mole Agent” makes it look like he can’t find her for at least two or three days, but the editing of this movie doesn’t make it clear exactly how long it really took. Aitken tells Chamy that he shouldn’t ask any of the retirement home staffers about Perez because it would arouse suspicion. And so, Chamy asks some residents if they know where Perez’s room is and they claim they’ve never heard of her. It’s all just leads to more contrived-looking series of scenes of Chamy lurking in hallways and taking notes.
And then there’s the inevitable moment when he’s snooping around and someone suddenly comes out of a room and startles him. And so, he quickly pretends that he wasn’t looking at the names of people on the doors. If he could’ve done some stereotypical “I’m just minding my own business” whistling, the filmmakers probably would’ve loved it. Considering that Chamy has no real experience as a detective, any “investigating” he does looks purely for show. There are parts of this movie that look like Chamy knew in advance that he had to do some acting to create footage that the filmmakers could use.
“The Mole Agent” makes it look like every day he’s in the retirement home, Chamy writes notes in a journal and calls in to Aitken to give a summary of what he found out that day. He’s also told that he has to this report is a daily requirement for the assignment. Cue the scenes of Chamy fumbling to upload some of the secret photos and videos that he took in the retirement phone.
Chamy eventually finds Perez, but it turns out that she’s very aloof and doesn’t like to talk very much. She rebuffs his attempts to have conversations with her. The movie then turns into something else: Chamy ends up becoming friendly with and emotionally attached to other residents at the retirement home. All of his new friends happen to be women.
The women he forms the closest bonds with are
- Berta “Bertita” Ureta, who makes it known as soon as she sees Chamy that she’s attracted to him.
- Marta Olivares, who has a child-like demeanor and a mischievous side to her.
- Petronila “Petita” Abarca, who likes to read poetry as a way to connect with other people.
- Rubira Olivares, who shows signs of depression and other mental-health issues.
- Zoila González, who is very religious and says that she often talks to Jesus Christ.
Over the course of the movie, Chamy acts less like a detective and more like a personal counselor/therapist to the women. He has a positive and upbeat attitude that lifts the residents’ spirits. And he is tolerant and understanding of any quirks that they might have.
For example, Oliveras is in such an infantile state of mind that she still thinks her mother is still alive. The retirement home’s staffers indulge this delusion by calling on Oliveras on the phone and pretending to be her mother, so Oliveras won’t feel her family has forgotten about her. Chamy plays along with this ruse too, because he knows that it’s the type of lie that helps Oliveras cope with her loneliness. He’s also patient with her when she plays little pranks on him, such as stealing items out of his pockets.
Viewers will amused at the way Ureta turns up the charm in her flirtation with Chamy. During his first or second day at the retirement home, he’s eating by himself in the cafeteria-styled dining room. She goes over to him and gives him her dessert.
Later, they have a private conversation alone together and Ureta doesn’t even try to hide her delight when she finds out he’s a recent widower. At one point in the movie, she blurts in a half-joking way, while Chamy and other people are in the room, that the retirement home would be an ideal place for a wedding. During a dance party at the home, Ureta tells Chamy that she’s in love with him, and he eventually tells her if he’s interested in pursuing a romance with her or not.
And what about the detective work that Chamy was hired to do? The most meaningful parts of the movie aren’t Chamy’s spying shenanigans but the more genuine moments that show how Chamy helps the residents cope with the emotional pain of feeling lonely and abandoned. When he sees firsthand that some of the home’s residents don’t have anyone visiting them, it makes him appreciate how lucky he is to have a loving family.
In the movie, Chamy says that has two daughters, one son and five grandchildren. Chamy turned 84 years old in the retirement home while filming this documentary. Dalal, Chamy’s son and a granddaughter and grandson visit him on his birthday. At the birthday party for Chamy, the staffers surprise him by having a singer serenade him, and he is moved to tears. He might have checked into the facility to try to find abuse and neglect, but by the end of this story, he finds a sense of renewed hope about life that the movie obviously wants viewers to feel too.
Gravitas Ventures released “The Mole Agent” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020. PBS’s “POV” series premiered “The Mole Agent” on January 25, 2021. The movie is also available for streaming on Hulu.