We’ve already had one highly creative documentary for 2020 dealing with the aging process and dementia, in the form of the wonderful Dick Johnson is Dead. It was kind, heartfelt, and led by an absolutely charming central figure. It helped me deal with the grief and stress that I’ve been processing over the last year with my own mother’s diagnosis. And now, thanks to the nation of Chile, I have even more aid, this time when it comes to the reality of life in a nursing home. Shortlisted for both International Feature and Documentary Feature is The Mole Agent, a funny and poignant look at a sector of the community we as a society can easily forget.
Beginning with essentially an open casting call, the film is about a private investigation agency that hires an elderly man to go undercover at a nursing home, to look into accusations from the family of a resident about theft and abuse. Eventually, 83-year-old widower Sergio is chosen, and given the heavy implications at hand here, I was initially a bit put off by how light-hearted the first 30 minutes felt, as the PI basically trains Sergio to be a spy, while upbeat espionage movie sound-alike music plays in the background. Sergio is taught how to use FaceTime and WhatsApp for communication with the office, he’s given codewords to use for daily reports, and he’s even issued some genuine spy gadgets in the form of a pocket pen and glasses with cameras and microphones attached. The PI even explains that the film crew that will be following him around has already been cleared through the home as doing basic documentary footage, but they’d be interested in following around a “new” resident… you know, if one were to pop up.
It’s all very kitschy at first, and I wondered if the film itself is not taking things seriously enough. I know first-hand from the last six months how hard it is to hear that staff and other residents might not be giving a loved one the care they need, and it’s gotten me very worried to listen to my mom talk about it. It’s especially jarring with her dementia diagnosis, because without being there I can’t parse what might actually be happening, what she might be seeing but misinterpreting, or what’s potentially completely imagined. But then I realized that this is a completed project, and the filmmakers wouldn’t take such a tone if there was anything truly untoward happening, so this becomes a more uplifting caper than an in-depth investigation into serious wrongdoing. Once that kicked in, I found myself enjoying the film immensely.
Sergio is given his instructions and a timeline of three months to gather his information. He immediately makes a good impression on everyone there, as he’s kind, charming, and very sociable. He’s also seen as a bit of eye candy, as one of only five men in a home with over 40 women, and for a man his age, he is quite handsome. I totally get it. This allows him to basically have free reign over the place and conduct his investigation pretty much out in the open without interference. That’s another point to the side of there not being anything truly wrong going on. If there was, the home would have either not allowed the film crew to be around, or would have engaged in some sort of subterfuge that could be caught and exposed. Also, their mere presence creates an observer effect for the staff and residents that would make it hard to do any real digging.
Sergio lives as close to normally as one can under the circumstances, and meets a colorful cast of characters among the other residents, including his intended target, Sonia. Sonia is a bit wary of those around her, and takes time to open up. There are definitely things going on around her that need to be clarified, but the fact that she doesn’t even show up until the second act and then takes a backseat to the other residents as far as screentime is concerned gives you all the info you need about how serious her issues really are.
This is where the film shifts into what becomes its higher purpose. Many of the residents feel lonely and isolated, mostly because people rarely come to visit. My mom feels the same way, but at least in her situation – as it is for nursing home patients and residents around the country – it’s because of the pandemic that visitations are limited if not entirely curtailed. I can’t imagine how stir crazy the residents in Sergio’s home would be if this had been filmed in 2020 during the lockdowns. But what ends up mattering the most is how the film, and Sergio himself, gives these people the attention and compassion they deserve. Many have physical and mental health problems, but mostly they just want to be acknowledged.
Once that thematic backdrop is in place, we really get to know the others through Sergio’s extroverted personality. Petita greets Sergio with poetry upon his arrival, and her verses give comfort to all around her. Boisterous virgin Berta has been living in the home for 25 of her 85 years, and finds herself smitten with Sergio. Rubira hasn’t seen her family all year, so Sergio arranges for the PI to get photos of her relatives after she has a panic attack. In the most tragic case, a woman named Marta has dementia and goes to the home’s gate every day asking passersby to take her home to be with her long-deceased mother. The nurses take such pity on her that they call the desk every few days and talk to her as if they’re her mother.
It’s a very human story being told here, through the lens of low-key spycraft. Because of that, we’re able to laugh and mourn with people who are all too often ignored. It’s sad in many places, but ultimately life-affirming, and funny in many other places while remaining grounded and sincere. It’s a shame that such drastic measures had to be taken to give these people the outlet they need to the world, but the world is better for it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Would you ever go undercover for a private investigator? How would you react to being voted King of the Nursing Home? Let me know!