From the opening footage of The Mole Agent, the Chilean film nominated for best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards, viewers can feel like they can predict the next hour and a half. There are the magnifying glass, the files, the pale shadows from the film noir tradition – the stage is ready for a crime thriller. A private detective conducts recruitment interviews for a spy to investigate an unusual case that came across his desk: a woman wants to find out if her mother is being ill-treated at a nursing home in El Monte, a suburb of Santiago. And soon Sergio, a cute 83-year-old widower looking for something to spend his time, will be planted as a spy in the apartment.
But The Mole Agent isn’t exactly a crime story. Directed by Maite Alberdi, a Santiago filmmaker whose work focuses on marginalized communities, The Mole Agent takes an anthropological perspective on nursing homes and the treatment of the elderly by society. For Alberdi, the crime genre is just a facade: by working in it, The Mole Agent can set viewers’ expectations before ultimately undermining the clean, traditional crime story to the larger and more chaotic conversation about society in Chile and society about the treatment of the elderly in addition to include.
This conversation is timely; Latin America is one of the fastest aging regions in developing countries. Governments across the region are rethinking their policies for this growing population sector. In Chile in particular, recent social unrest has shown the urgency of the problem. In 2019, violent protests against rising social inequality erupted across the country, with a particular focus on the pension system, which was previously seen as a continental model. A holdover from the Pinochet dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, the Chilean functions as a defined contribution system, with workers paying 10 percent of their wages to charitable funds each month. However, as life expectancy has increased, the returns on this investment have proven too low to sustain a livable income and now 80 percent of retirees live on less than the minimum wage.
Despite being neglected by the state, the lack of a social safety net for older Chileans has forced them to rely disproportionately on immediate family members. Cultural changes have also added great stress to this population. The composition of Chilean families has changed in recent decades – the number of people per household decreased from 5.4 in 1960 to 3.6 in 2002 – and the proportion of elderly people living alone and in nursing homes has thus increases considerably. Meanwhile, older people face not only exclusion but also discrimination, including abuse, which affects 30 percent of older adults in Chile.
While The Mole Agent does not talk about the broader political and economic forces at play, Alberdi invites viewers to identify a “culprit” and thereby consider the sociopolitical factors that contribute to the social isolation of the elderly.
It’s a smart choice. The criminal investigation story is one of the most famous around the world. From Sherlock Holmes to Georges Simenon’s novels to the Dick Wolf mega-empire of Law & Order that neatly chart crime, investigation, chase, and reconnaissance within the confines of commercial breaks, seeing a crime, investigating, and doing one is satisfying Punishment was distributed. Justice will be restored until the next episode, the next case.
First of all, The Mole Agent follows this well-known formula. When Sergio arrives at the San Francisco nursing home in El Monte, the camera lingers in lush gardens, cats, laundry hanging in the wind, bright flowers and a statue of the Virgin Mary. These images are a common catch – everything may seem fine, but there is darkness beneath that sunny facade.
Indeed, there is a nagging feeling that the nursing home is where more activity is triggered. The camera invites you to view the administrators with suspicion, search residents for signs of abuse, and closely follow conversations. Early on, you can’t help but have the feeling that Sergio is finding the bad egg and putting it on trial by the end of the film.
However, as Sergio gets used to his new surroundings, it becomes clear that the nursing home is not as gothic as it first appeared. The women (the residents of the nursing home are almost all female) are charming, nice and funny. They seem to be reasonably well looked after and Sergio begins to relax and lose focus on his mission. In a diaristic voice-over you hear his reports to the detective, in which he thinks about the women, discusses what he had to eat and half-heartedly tries to track down Sonia, the target of the investigation. If he does find her, it is almost not an event as she seems completely uninterested in talking to him. Meanwhile, Sergio falls into a light romance when one of the women expresses interest in him and asks him to come with her to collect her pension.
But just as the film fits into the comfort of the nursing home and the pseudodetective elements subside, rougher and more agonizing scenarios unfold in front of the camera, slowly giving up their stylistic ambitions and relying more on simple observational documentation. A woman stands at the bright orange gates and asks passers-by to help her get out. To reassure her, the staff call her room pretending to be her mother. This leads to a heartbreaking scene where she cries and begs her mother to come pick her up. We see another resident collapse, scared and dizzy from her new medication. Sergio holds her hand as she suffers. A woman who loves reciting poetry comments bitterly that none of her children visit her. “After all, life is cruel,” she says.
When the plot deviates from a procedural structure and turns to a humanistic collection of experiences, it becomes clear that the crime is more mundane than what we are used to in normal crime stories: these older women and men feel lonely, abandoned by their society.
This problem is expected to worsen as the world rapidly approaches the point where older people will have more than children under 10 – which may be as early as 2030. The theme undoubtedly helped make documentaries about care for the elderly stand out in the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where The Mole Agent premiered. These include Dick Johnson Is Dead, a deeply humanistic autobiographical film that chronicles the director grappling with her father’s imminent death, and Some Kind of Heaven, which follows four residents of Florida’s sprawling Villages community. (In fictional programming, reference could also be made to the thriller I Care a Lot and Oscar-nominated drama The Father.) How societies care for their aging populations has gained much visibility in both documentary and public order the massive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on nursing homes and the elderly. In particular, The Mole Agent, which premiered in January 2020, asks questions about social responsibility and focuses on mental health issues. It feels like a cautious precursor to the talks that sparked the pandemic.
By the end of the film, Sergio has purposely given up his job of exposing a crime. He gives his final oral report in a voice-over. “The residents here feel lonely. They are not visited and some have been abandoned. Loneliness is the worst thing about this place, ”he says. “There is no crime for the customer to report to the authorities. … I don’t understand the point of this investigation. “There is no sense of victory in his decision.
After a tearful farewell to his new friends whom he promises to visit, Sergio leaves the nursing home with the private investigator. The final frame of the film is a wide view of the outside of the house – Sergio and the detective leave the frame, and for a moment the camera lingers with the residents, looking longingly out from behind barred gates. From a detective story perspective, it feels appropriate: the spy leaves after he finishes his job. He has determined that the residents’ suffering was not caused by the abuse of a poor caretaker or roommate. The real culprit – alienation from social trends and forces – remains too big and deeply rooted to pick from a list.