Sergio is 83, and he’s about to become a first-time spy—if only he can figure out how to use FaceTime. Seated across from Romulo, the private investigator who hired him, Sergio opens his iPhone camera app and lifts up the device, trying to understand why seeing his boss pictured on his screen isn’t the same thing as video-chatting him.
Older people’s struggles with technology, and in a larger sense the regrettable splintering of communication between the elderly and the young, are at the heart of The Mole Agent, a charming documentary that follows Sergio as he goes “undercover” in a retirement home. His mission is to investigate whether one of the female residents—his “target”—is being mistreated by the nurses, a task that was assigned to Romulo by the target’s suspicious daughter. Romulo puts out a call for men between the ages of 80 and 90, turning up a series of curious candidates. He eventually chooses Sergio, a soft-spoken Chilean gentleman who lost his wife just months earlier and seems eager for the diversion.
Obviously, Sergio is in most ways the anti-spy. Romulo equips him with a special pen and pair of spectacles that both contain tiny built-in video cameras, but Sergio can hardly figure out how to use them. Once he moves into the nursing home, Sergio has no trouble acting courteous and cordial among his new hallmates, but he has a hard time being discreet; he often sends Romulo voice memo updates while seated in the home’s public hallway for all to listen in—though neither the nurses nor residents ever seem to notice or care. It’s fresh and funny to watch an ostensibly serious espionage plot unfold in this gentle, slow-moving community, and the film’s charm and humor lie in its embrace of this contradiction.
Elderly people have long been of disproportionate interest to artists for this reason. It’s easy to make a cliché out of them, collapsing them into caricatures of the cutesy old couple or the crotchety grump shaking his cane in reproach. There’s also a tendency to fetishize old folks’ appearances: their wrinkles, their anachronistic clothing, their hunched postures—look how adorable! How peculiar! How endearing! As a society, we’re so accustomed to infantilizing images that many slip by imperceptibly, seeming intrinsic to elderly narratives in general.
This is a difficult trap to dodge, but writer-director Maite Alberdi deftly circles it without falling in. She zeroes in on several storylines within the retirement home: a woman who can’t remember whether her children have come to visit, another woman who’s convinced her mother will retrieve her soon. There are more lucid residents, too, such as one woman who falls promptly in love with Sergio and hopes they’ll get married in the home. The specificity of these characters, their wants and personalities, allows them to defy easy arrangement. Alberdi is careful to ensure that they’re never merely agents of Sergio’s narrative but rather characters in their own right, with stories and arcs that we know will run on after Sergio’s assignment is complete.
It’s tricky that the funniest and sweetest aspects of the story do hinge around Sergio’s age. It’s no big spoiler to report that what ultimately allows Sergio a breakthrough in his investigation is his ability to empathize with the precise needs of his target—and the home’s community as a whole—and those needs turn out to be rather different than what her daughter had originally surmised. In one memorable scene, as the residents celebrate the nursing home’s anniversary with a party, the nurses elect Sergio as “King.” He dons a plastic crown and dances with a series of blushing, giggling ladies, doddering around the room with panache. The risk of triteness here is very real, but that’s not to say that its charms are ageist. Like Sergio on his mission, The Mole Agent lets us surveil the risks and find the fun in it anyway.