The fear of old age’s erosion of our faculties, our agency and our relevance is a potent, almost paralysing one: the way we perceive and treat our elders invariably reveals something about ourselves. In her charming and off-kilter documentary The Mole Agent, Chilean director Maite Alberdi confronts that fear literally through the eyes of her subject.
The opening third of Alberdi’s film suggests a far different experience than the one it eventually becomes. Rómulo Aitken runs a private detective agency, specialising in catching care homes who are abusing their residents. His method is to plant a ‘mole’ in the home, equipped with spying gadgets and a smartphone and reporting on anything untoward that may be happening.
Aitken has been hired by a woman who suspects her elderly mother may be being abused, and so, looking for the eponymous mole agent, puts out an ad for men in their 80s. Cue plenty of funny but somewhat patronising footage of elderly applicants struggling to use smartphones. This stage of the film feels more like a Channel 4 documentary with a tacky name than a serious examination of elder abuse.
Indeed, the early scenes suggest that some very iffy ethics are at play, borne of a conceit not entirely thought through. We learn that the deception goes beyond the mole with a hidden camera: there’s also a phoney documentary set up in the home in order for Alberdi to capture footage beyond that which is shot by newly-hired mole Sergio. Invariably, there’s a question of how ‘real’ any of this scenario is – it even feels conceivable at times (though false) that the film could be an elaborate and grossly immoral stunt to ease Sergio into living in the care home himself.
Soon, however, The Mole Agent transforms into something else – a far more contemplative and altogether humane account of life in a Chilean care home. Sergio is one of very few men in the home, and he soon has a cadre of swooning women. Faultlessly charming and gentlemanly, he lets his most passionate admirer down gently, telling her that he still isn’t over the death of his beloved wife.
This scene, coming at around the halfway point, reveals what The Mole Agent is really about: a man coming to the end of his life searching for new purpose and place in the world. Though he is there under false pretences, the connections he makes are real. So to is his understanding of and empathy with the residents who have been largely abandoned by their relatives.
The premise of searching for abuse is quickly abandoned: it’s clear that Sergio’s target is being well looked after, but she needs something that no care home can provide. His final report to Aitken concludes that if the residents suffer, it is at the hands of their loved ones who have forgotten them, and a society that has no further use for them. Sergio’s outlook is hopeful, his indictment on the families who abandon their elders is less so.