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The Mole Agent

Kupferberg shows how she used to splice films.
Kupferberg shows how to splice a film.

The Mole Agent, a recent documentary feature from Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi, is a unique film in both style and content. The story is straight forward at first. A woman whose mother is in a Chilean nursing home hires a detective to investigate if her mother is being mistreated. The detective, in turn, hires Sergio, an 83-year-old man, to infiltrate the home and get the dope on the situation for his client.

Now this is a documentary. And while I, as most film viewers, am pretty experienced at sussing out whether a film is a fictional narrative or a documentary, this movie baffles me. It is called a documentary, and it captures a true series of events. However, at times it looks and feels like fiction – like a noir detective story. I’m still trying to figure out how Alberdi and her cinematographer Pablo Valdes managed to film inside the nursing home without being spotted. So high is the quality of this work that it was the official submission of Chile in the Best Documentary Feature Film category at the Oscars earlier this year.

Sergio enters the nursing home, posing as a new resident. He is ambulatory, and he has all his marbles, as we like to say. But he seems under-weight, walks gingerly, and, with his worn facial features, surely is an octogenarian, so he fits into the population of elderly quite well. Since he is a spy, he wears special eyeglasses which support a hidden camera. During his first days in the home, he works with enthusiasm to uncover the possible abuse which the detective’s client accuses the residence.

As the days flow one into the other, Sergio wearies of his task. Rather than abuse, what he does discover is a sense of community. He finds new friends. It is wonderful to follow the progress he makes with other residents. Before long, he is Mr. Popularity. The intended mission that Sergio had when entering the home becomes inconsequential to him. What matters to him is the humanity of the individuals who live there permanently. At first, I saw Sergio only as an elderly man. Before long, I began to see him as a charmer, sweet and kind, and intelligent about the state of affairs in the home.

Watching The Mole Agent, the viewer never forgets that most of the occupants of the nursing home are physically fragile, and, sadly, in some cases in a state of dementia. One woman is a thief, but not really a felon—simply a very vulnerable old woman who has lost control of her mind. As with any population, a few individuals stand out for their strong personalities. One woman is a poet, and her recitations are both deep and delightful.

For anyone, such as myself, who has spent several hours per day with a loved one in a nursing home, the events in this documentary will ring true. Alberdi has succeeded in depicting the spirit and the quirks of her subject.

The Mole Agent is in Spanish with English subtitles. It is available from a number of streaming sources and on DVD.

While The Mole Agent features a community of people who live long lives, another film, a recent fiction film called Supernova, offers a glimpse of a loving couple, one of whom is slipping into dementia at a comparatively young age. Colin Firth and Stanly Tucci play long-term partners who are facing the end of their happiness. They set out on a journey across England to visit with friends and family. Supernova is available for home viewing.

It’s astounding how many films of the past decade are dealing with the problems of fatal cancers and dementia in the middle-aged and elderly. Such topics used to be considered poor box office. Now these film productions are considered timely and relevant.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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