Octogenarian Sherlock Holmes

Oscar-nominated “The Mole Agent” is a film noir take on life in a Chilean nursing home.

A photo from the film “The Mole Agent.”
A photo from the film “The Mole Agent.” Gravitas Ventures

From the opening shots of The Mole Agent, the Chilean film nominated for best documentary feature at this year’s Academy Awards, viewers may feel that they can predict the next hour and a half. There’s the magnifying glass, the case files, the slatted shadows from the film noir tradition—the stage is set for a crime thriller. A private detective conducts recruitment interviews for a spy to investigate an unusual case that has come across his desk: A woman wants to find out if her mother is being abused at a nursing home in El Monte, a suburb of Santiago. And soon enough, Sergio, a sweet 83-year-old widower looking for something to occupy his time, is planted as a spy in the home.

But The Mole Agent isn’t exactly a crime story. Directed and written by Maite Alberdi, a filmmaker from Santiago whose work centers marginalized communities, The Mole Agent turns an anthropological lens toward nursing homes and society’s treatment of older people. For Alberdi, the crime genre is just a facade: Working within it allows The Mole Agent to set viewer expectations before ultimately subverting the clean, traditional crime story to take on the larger and messier conversation about society’s treatment of older people in Chile and beyond.

That conversation is timely; Latin America is one of the fastest-aging regions in the developing world. Governments across the region are reassessing their policies for this growing sector of the population. In Chile in particular, recent social unrest has demonstrated the urgency of the problem. In 2019, violent protests broke out in the country against rising social inequality, with a particular focus on the pension system, which was previously held up as a continental model. A remnant of the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, the Chilean functions as a defined contribution scheme, which requires workers to pay 10 percent of their wages each month to for-profit funds. As life expectancy has risen, however, the returns from that investment have proved to be too low to sustain a livable income, and now 80 percent of pensioners are living off less than the minimum wage.

While they’ve been neglected by the state, the lack of a social safety net for older Chileans has forced them to disproportionately rely on immediate family members. Cultural shifts have also contributed to major stress on this population. The makeup of Chilean families has changed in the last few decades—the number of people per household dropped from 5.4 in 1960 to 3.6 in 2002—and the proportion of older people living by themselves and in nursing homes has thus increased significantly. Meanwhile, older people face not only exclusion but also discrimination, including abuse, which affects 30 percent of older adults in Chile.

Alberdi invites viewers to consider the sociopolitical factors that contribute to the social isolation of older people.

Although The Mole Agent does not discuss the broader political and economic forces at play, by framing the plot as a detective story, Alberdi invites viewers to identify a “culprit” and thus consider the sociopolitical factors that contribute to the social isolation of older people.

It’s a clever choice. The narrative of crime investigation is one of the most recognizable around the world. From Sherlock Holmes to Georges Simenon’s novels to the Dick Wolf mega-empire of Law & Order that neatly presents crime, investigation, chase, and resolution within the confines of commercial breaks, there’s something satisfying about seeing a crime happen, an investigation occur, and a punishment doled out. Justice is restored until the next episode, the next case.

At first, The Mole Agent follows that familiar formula. When Sergio arrives at the San Francisco nursing home in El Monte, the camera lingers on lush gardens, cats, laundry hanging in the wind, bright flowers, and a statue of the Virgin Mary. These images are a common hook—everything may seem well, but beneath this sunny facade, there is darkness.

Indeed, there’s a nagging feeling that the nursing home is the site of more elicit activity. The camera invites you to look at its administrators with suspicion, scan its inhabitants for indications of abuse, and listen closely to conversations. Early on, you can’t help but feel that Sergio will find the bad egg and bring them to justice by the end of the film.

As Sergio grows accustomed to his new surroundings, though, it becomes clear that the nursing home is not as Gothic as it first appeared. The women (the nursing home’s residents are almost all female) are charming, kind, and funny. They seem to receive reasonably good care, and Sergio starts to relax and lose focus on his mission. In a diaristic voiceover, you hear his reports to the detective, where he muses about the women, discusses what he has had to eat, and halfheartedly tries to locate Sonia, the target of the investigation. When he does find her, it’s almost a nonevent, as she seems utterly uninterested in speaking to him. Meanwhile, Sergio becomes entangled in a light romance when one of the women expresses interest in him and asks him to accompany her to pick up her pension.

Yet just as the film settles into the nursing home’s comforts and the pseudo-detective elements start to thin out, more raw and distressing scenarios unfold in front of the camera, which slowly abandons its stylistic ambitions and becomes grounded more in straightforward observational documentary. One woman stands by the bright orange gates and entreats passersby to help her get out. To calm her down, the staff phone her room pretending to be her mother, prompting a heart-wrenching scene where she weeps and asks her mother to come get her. We see another resident break down, frightened and dizzied by her new medication. Sergio holds her hand as she suffers. One woman, who enjoys reciting poetry, comments bitterly that none of her children visit her. “Life is cruel, after all,” she says.

As the plot deviates from a procedural setup and moves toward a humanistic gathering of experiences, it becomes clear that the crime that has taken place is more banal than what we’re used to in normal crime stories: These older women and men feel lonely, deserted by their society.

The crime that has taken place is more banal than what we’re used to in normal crime stories.

That problem is set to grow more difficult as the world fast approaches the point at which older persons will outnumber children under age 10—which may come as soon as 2030. The issue has undoubtedly contributed to the prominence of documentaries about elder care at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where The Mole Agent premiered. Those include Dick Johnson Is Dead, a deeply humanistic autobiographical film that chronicles the director coming to terms with her father’s approaching death, and Some Kind of Heaven, which follows four residents of the sprawling Villages retirement community in Florida. (Among fiction programming, one could also point to the thriller I Care a Lot and the Oscar-nominated drama The Father.) How societies care for their aging populations has gained visibility in documentary as well as in public policy, in large part due to the massive impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on nursing homes and older people. By posing questions about social responsibility and putting a spotlight on mental health issues, The Mole Agent in particular, which premiered in January 2020, feels like a prescient precursor to the conversations that the pandemic has incited.

By the end of the film, Sergio has willfully abandoned his task of uncovering a crime. He gives his final oral report in a voiceover. “The residents here feel lonely. They aren’t being visited, and some have been abandoned. Loneliness is the worst thing about this place,” he says. “There is no crime for the client to report to the authorities. … I don’t understand the point of doing this investigation.” There is no sense of victory to his decision.

After a tearful goodbye to his new friends, whom he promises to visit, Sergio leaves the nursing home with the private investigator. The final image of the film is a wide view of the home’s exterior—Sergio and the detective exit the frame, and for a moment the camera lingers on the residents, looking out wistfully from behind barred gates. From the perspective of a detective story, it feels apt: The spy departs having done his job. He has identified that the suffering of the residents was not caused by the abuse of one bad caretaker or fellow resident. The real culprit—alienation at the hands of social trends and forces—remains too vast and entrenched to pick out from a lineup.

Lucia Arce Ahrensdorf is a Bolivian-American freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She is currently working on a television production for FX.

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