It feels like cheating to label the Chilean movie The Mole Agent a documentary. Though we are informed right at the start of the premise of the investigation being recorded, there’s such an overriding sense of calculated setup that the viewer is constantly checking their own capacity for suspension of disbelief. Everything, from the camera work to the development of the narrative, is perfectly calibrated to what we expect from a good detective story, and the peculiar genius of Maite Alberdi’s direction is the way it masks its cleverness: Was it designed to be like this, or did everything just fall into place of its own accord?
Granted, there isn’t a lot of danger involved in the enterprise. A private detective named Romulo Aitken is hired by a woman who thinks her elderly mother is being abused by the staff of the nursing home where she lives. Unable to get anywhere by directly confronting the nursing home, Aitken advertises for a mole, an old man who will be surreptiously enrolled in the nursing home to work undercover to reveal abuse. He auditions candidates and chooses Sergio, a pretty genki 83-year-old without a cynical bone in his body, which makes him, at first, an unlikely sleuth. He’s securely ensconced in the home thanks to his own daughter, who’s in on the scheme and makes the necessary request for care. Aitken equips Sergio with a smartphone and even special spy glasses linked to a camera app. However, the old man doesn’t seem to have much use for these tricks of the trade, and takes a more journalistic approach to the assignment, asking staff directly about their treatment of the residents as well as residents about their experiences.
All of this is meticulously recorded by Alberdi’s crew, who tell the home that they are making a documentary about old age in general and seem to have all the freedom in the world to hang around Sergio while he does his job. That no one found this aspect of the project suspicious automatically tips the viewer off to one very likely truth: That nothing particularly untoward is going on at the nursing home. People who are suspicious, after all, are those who themselve have something to hide. As far as the movie’s own sense of mystery goes, Sergio at first has trouble locating the supposed victim of abuse, Sonia, because most of the residents are elderly women, and a good portion of them don’t socialize. But those who do automatically attach themselves to Sergio, who becomes the star of the place for obvious reasons: He’s a man, he possesses all his faculties, and he’s more charming than Cary Grant. This aspect complicates his job, since he’s always being pursued by one or more widow who would like nothing better than to spend her remaining days in this place with Sergio.
Alberdi enhances the espionage component of the movie by playing up the communications between Sergio and Aitken, which actually read more like literary dispatches than coded messages, as well as the secret videos he takes with his spy glasses. The fact that these portions of the film inadvertently show up what a pleasant place the nursing home is and how happy most of the residents are conveys, way ahead of time, that there may not be much to the client’s charge that terrible things are going on within, but as they say, it’s the trip, not the destination.
In Spanish. Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Cinema Qualite Shinjuku (03-3352-5645).
The Mole Agent home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2021 Dogwoof Ltd.