Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2021 Academy Awards, this Chilean film follows an 83-year-old man who agrees to be a mole planted within a retirement home under suspicion of elder abuse. As Liam Maguren writes, this true story proves more amusing and open-hearted than most made-up films you’ll see this year.
The nominees for this year’s Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards included hard-hitting social statement films Collective, Crip Camp and Time (as well as that Netflix octopus movie that ended up winning the Oscar). Filling out the ballot was The Mole Agent which, on the surface, looked more like a fluffy mid-afternoon delight than a pressing observation on real-life matters. Amazingly, it’s both.
The kooky premise certainly sounds like something that would star Jim Broadbent: a private investigator hires Sergio, an 83-year-old with no experience in spying or iPhones, to go undercover within an aged care facility where a client suspects elder abuse. Sergio proves himself an incredibly humourous and impossibly charming character, whether he’s befuddled by his ‘spytech’ (e.g. Facetime) or winning the hearts of his fellow residents by simply being a good listener.
That latter point proves vital as the tale gradually takes a pivotal and poignant turn thanks to Sergio’s style of investigation. By moving from straightforward snooping to compassionate counselling, Sergio eventually uncovers a deeper truth—”a pressing observation on real-life matters,” if you will—that only a person in his particular position could see so clearly.
With a retirement home full of vivid characters, some incredibly clean cinematography, and an impeccably tidy narrative, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Mole Agent wasn’t a documentary at all. And it’s probably worth noting the filmmakers had admitted at Sundance that they were the ones to cast Sergio, not the private eye as implied in the film.
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However, the vast majority of the doco appears sound, with filmmaker Maite Alberdi detailing to The Guardian how the story swerved and transformed with Sergio changing course. Early scenes also confirm the omnipresence of the documentary crew, with Alberdi and her team in shot during the “interview” process. There’s even a comical moment with elderly residents commenting on the boom mic above and the camera in the bushes, fully aware that a documentary’s being made about them but unsure how to behave.
You also cannot blow off the power of great editing. With 300 hours of footage to work with, Alberdi and her team have carved out a sleek 90-minute film that’s more amusing and open-hearted than most made-up films you’ll see this year.
The Mole Agent also has a better shot at motivating its audience towards its call to action than most other documentaries in its field. Sure, its plea isn’t as demanding as fighting against corruption in Romania, America’s problematic incarceration system, or the current climate crisis. However, if you have an elderly relative in an aged care facility, this undeniably affectionate film’s guaranteed to make you reevaluate your connection to them—for the better.