Int’l Critics Line: Anna Smith On Chile’s Oscar-Shortlisted ‘The Mole Agent’

An 83-year-old man goes undercover in a nursing home in The Mole Agent, Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s Oscar hopeful that’s been shortlisted for both International Feature and Documentary. While it’s filmed and scored in the style of a playful spy movie, it’s most remarkable in its quieter moments, as the true heart of the story emerges.

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Sergio Chamy is a gentle Santiago widower who answers a newspaper advert placed by a private investigator. An amusing opening sequence shows several older men being interviewed, each intrigued by the prospect of a clandestine spy mission on behalf of a resident’s daughter, who suspects mistreatment in the home. It is not clear why the advert specified ‘elderly male needed,’ but Sergio’s gender works in his favor when he enters the retirement facility, which is populated largely by lonely women. As he befriends them one by one, his espionage becomes increasingly less interesting to him — and to us. This is about the women, and their response to a caring new friend. As the real-life story shifts, Alberdi follows skillfully, and the result is a charming, thought-provoking insight into later life in a patriarchal culture.

While some of The Mole Agent is shot through Sergio’s spy glasses, more comes from the professional crew ostensibly filming a straightforward doc about the care home — as far as we know, no staff or residents know Sergio’s real reason for spending three months there. Like many a good cover story, his is credible because it’s rooted in reality. He’s grieving his wife, and much as he loves his grown-up children, he could use new company and a change of scene.

Sergio’s unassuming charisma lies in his compassion. He listens intently to the women’s problems, comforts them with wise advice and even sheds a tear with them. Some have been in the home for decades, and speak openly to both Sergio and staff about their lost dreams, and feeling neglected by their families. Mischievous kleptomaniac Marta is responsible for some of the funniest moments, and also the most poignant. She waits in vain for a visitor every day, only slightly placated by phone calls from the staff, posing as the mother she longs for and who is presumably long dead. Marta grips the bars of the locked front door, begging passers-by to let her out. She will melt and/or break your heart almost as much as Bertita, a sprightly devoted Catholic who falls hard for Sergio and thinks he might be the man to take her virginity. He deals with her amorous declaration with admirable sensitivity.

Kindness is at the root of this doc that doesn’t seek to demonize or expose the care home system. While they’re not the focus, the staff are shown to be caring and thoughtful, much to the surprise and probable frustration of Sergio’s employer. This quality alone would make for a rewarding watch at any time. But in an era when the pandemic has shone a light onto the elderly and the care system, The Mole Agent is a particularly compelling piece of cinema.

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