'The Mole Agent': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Funny, poignant and finely crafted.

Maite Alberdi's doc follows an 83-year-old man hired to go undercover in a Chilean nursing home.

A refreshing, beautifully made documentary set in a nursing home under suspicion of elder neglect, Maite Alberdi's The Mole Agent begins with its tongue in cheek but grows quite moving by its end. Structured with a brilliant eye for narrative development and telling character detail, it's likely to inspire some industry viewers to inquire about feature-adaptation rights. As easy as it is to imagine as a scripted film, though, the trick would be to leave the screen with as much grace and as little mawkishness as our actual hero, an 83-year-old Chilean widower named Sergio.

Get this setup: A woman hires a private investigator when she worries that her mother, a nursing-home resident, is being mistreated or stolen from. The detective places a newspaper ad, "Elderly male needed," in search of a candidate to place undercover at the home. Then, from a field of very sharp candidates (who have stories to tell about ageism in job interviews), he finds his man. Then he must teach him the difference between shooting photos on a phone and starting a FaceTime call.

Tech newbie or not, Sergio proves ideal in ways far beyond the needs of the investigator, a smooth middle-aged man named Romulo. Dapper, sharp-minded and generous in conversation, Sergio is immediately popular at the San Francisco nursing home. Women gossip about him, and one, an aged virgin who has only hugged and kissed boyfriends in the past, envisions marrying him. (Sergio lets her down gently, saying that a mere four months after his wife's death, he's not interested in that kind of relationship.)

Alberdi and her team have, evidently, already started making a film inside the facility when Sergio arrives, so residents and staff won't understand that they're also filming his investigation. But a viewer quickly wonders: What kind of administrators would allow patients to be abused while a film crew is around? Judging from Pablo Valdes' handsome, thoughtful photography, the crew's presence could not have been easy to ignore. Maybe Alberdi's agenda and Romulo's aren't completely aligned?

We do spend some time watching as Sergio scrupulously studies his surroundings, monitoring the cleanliness of bathrooms and the meds given to "the Target," an unsociable woman named Sonia. (He's pretty brazen, just walking into strangers' rooms and looking around.) But the film grows more interested in his social impact at the home — quietly observing one-on-one conversations with other women who are unlikely to further his investigation.

He listens to one woman's poetry, and appreciates that it rhymes. He becomes chummy with one, seemingly suffering some dementia, who can't keep her hands out of others' pockets and believes her mother is coming to get her soon. Most poignantly, he patiently has the same visit over and over with a woman who is cogent in conversation but never remembers having spoken with him before.

It will come as no surprise that neglectful children are a frequent topic of conversation. Even the woman who hired Romulo doesn't seem to visit the mother she's so concerned about. Everyone's busy; everyone has a family of his own to raise. But this loneliness is framed eloquently by Sergio as he makes his daily reports to his boss. Maybe the biggest problem at San Francisco is the lack of quality company?

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Micromundo Producciones,  Motto Pictures, Sutor Kolonko, Volya Films, Malvalanda
Director-screenwriter: Maite Alberdi
Producer: Marcela Santibanez
Executive producers: Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn
Director of photography: Pablo Valdes
Editor: Carolina Siraqyan
Composer: Vincent van Warmerdam

89 minutes