Review: The Mole Agent

Though it’s ostensibly a film about an elderly spy going undercover in a retirement home to catch the staff in their neglect and abuse of its residents red-handed, there is very little worrisome drama in The Mole Agent, a documentary by Maite Alberdi. With that almost comical set-up, Alberdi’s warm and moving film is instead a welcome reminder of the life left to be lived in our seventh, eighth decades and beyond.

The film begins with an almost comical set-up, as Rómulo Aitken, a private investigator, interviews potential moles to place in the facility where his client believes their aging relative, Sonia, is being abused. Seeking a man in his 80s who is well-versed in technology (a tall order, it turns out), Rómulo meets Sergio Chamy, a soft-spoken widower more than ready to be part of the action. The two of them dive into a sort of spy training, Rómulo and his team trying to teach Sergio how to use WhatsApp, FaceTime, voice memos and more on his phone, plus true espionage tools like a pen and glasses with built-in cameras. Sergio is to be placed in the San Francisco Home for the Elderly for three months, embedding with the residents and, between low-impact exercise classes and meals in the common room, meet Sonia and report back to Rómulo any suspicious findings or behavior.

It would all be a witty set up for a crime caper if this were a fictional film, but Sergio takes the opportunity very seriously, going so far as to assure his grown daughter that he needs to do this, that since his wife’s death, he needs the sense of purpose in his life. She starts tearing up, hearing her father speak so transparently, and you might, too. Sergio is something special, it’s clear to see, someone for whom it’s easy to make a connection with others, someone loved and with a lot to offer those lucky enough to know him. Despite some frustrations with the technology (Sergio trying to video call him via the camera app is particularly endearing), Rómulo moves forward with placing Sergio in the community for a three month stay; he’ll identify “the mark” and report back daily on his findings.

Or at least, that’s the plan.

From the moment he arrives, Sergio stands out at the home, not least of all because he seems to be one of only a handful of men in a community of elderly women with not much else to do but gossip, speculate and fawn over the new arrival. Almost instantly, he’s an object of affection, a new friend, the one everyone wants to know. And encouraged by the attention, Sergio begins to come out of his shell, not shy about sitting next to fellow residents, introducing himself, sharing some get-to-know-you small talk and, in his own charming way, getting to work. He scours the halls to find Sonia’s room; he diligently takes notes every day and reports back to Rómulo both news of the case and what he had for dinner. He’s a good sport through it all, genuinely wanting to do the job he’s been tasked with but also happily thriving in a place so filled with life, so different from his solitary existence at home.

The women are drawn to Sergio, from the feisty Berta who immediately declares her love for him (the idea of a wedding comes up astonishingly quickly) to the poet who can recite verses on request or the dementia patient Sergio patiently helps through a moment of disoriented panic. They invite him to sit with him at meals, they seek him out on walks in the home’s courtyard. Eventually, they throw him a birthday party and, well, just wait for the scene at the home’s anniversary party. Let’s just say Sergio becomes something of the belle of the ball.

Alberdi’s filmmaking isn’t always traditional, as early in the film we get glimpses of her and her crew filming Sergio and Rómulo during training, and sometimes the home’s residents whisper to each other to beware the big microphones hanging overhead nearby. What’s more, the observational style she employs is in fact so polished it begins to blur the lines between documentation and something more staged, more edited into a narrative. But these are qualms that are forgiven for the sheer delight it is to get to know Sergio and his neighbors. The elderly are often an afterthought in society, having put in their work and raised their children. And with a global pandemic making it dangerous to visit grandparents or other aging relatives, The Mole Agent reminds me that I have let to much time go by since my last phone call to my grandmother.

The Mole Agent is now streaming on all major VOD platforms.