The Mole Agent review – care-home spy uncovers wells of loneliness

This documentary, set in an old people’s home in Chile, exasperatingly fails to come clean about its own setup

There are moments of sweetness and sadness in Maite Alberdi’s documentary about an old people’s care home in Chile. But I couldn’t make friends with this film because of its pointless and twee contrivance, which undermined its genuine ideas. Not fakery exactly, but an exasperating lack of candour as to how this whole thing has been set up.

We begin by seeing a Santiago private detective, Rómulo Aitken, who has placed an ad in a paper for an elderly man to be a spy or “mole agent” in an old people’s home, posing as someone needing short-term respite care. With the aid of gadgetry such as hidden cameras and microphones he must find evidence of elder abuse. The detective’s client is evidently a woman whose mother, Sonia Pérez, is in this home, and the daughter is worried. So a very sweet and lovable widower called Sergio Chamy is finally recruited and installed as a resident.

But wait. The documentary, it turns out, already has a crew in this place, working openly with the home’s permission, having apparently assured it that they wish only to make an uncontroversial film about life there. The vast majority of the footage is from this team, with only a few seconds of the “secret” video from Sergio’s hidden cameras. So … when did Alberdi get involved? When she saw the newspaper ad? Or did she herself have the idea for a care-home film, and cooked up this semi-serious “mole agent” idea to give it a quirky spin?

Either way, Sergio does not discover any elder abuse, only the residents’ loneliness and unhappiness and the scandalous way their relatives don’t visit them: a malaise in society which we are finally sort-of invited to accept is the real abuse. As for Sonia Pérez’s daughter … we never see her. Was the whole “abuse” worry a fictional premise? Sergio himself has real gentleness and is a lovely character, and there is some amiable comedy about how he is starting to enjoy himself in the home. But he is marooned in a tricksy, gimmicky film.

• The Mole Agent is in cinemas and on digital formats from 11 December.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Mole Agent: the story of the most unusual documentary of the year
An 83-year-old goes undercover in a Chilean nursing home in a warm-hearted and surprising look at age and intimacy

Radheyan Simonpillai

01, Sep, 2020 @3:36 PM

Article image
Islander review – change and contradictions on Robinson Crusoe island
Stéphane Goël’s documentary merges the past and present of this small island off the coast of Chile

Phuong Le

06, Sep, 2021 @9:14 AM

Article image
Cielo review – love letter to the desert’s starry skies
Alison McAlpine’s documentary draws out tales from locals and astronomers to evoke the magic and mystery of Chile’s stargazing hotspot

Cath Clarke

22, Apr, 2021 @10:12 PM

Article image
Arica review – gripping tale of Chileans fighting back against a mining giant
This documentary covers the struggle for environmental justice as 800 local residents take a Swedish company to court

Phuong Le

02, May, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
The Cordillera of Dreams review – a haunting reflection on Chile’s brutal past
Patricio Guzmán’s documentary juxtaposes historical chaos with the eternal beauty of the mountain range that surrounds Santiago

Peter Bradshaw

04, Oct, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
On your way, Pinochet! The factory workers who fought fascism from Glasgow
When Scots refused to service Chile’s jet fighters after the 1973 military coup, their protest all but grounded the air force – and may have saved prisoners’ lives. Nae Pasaran, a powerful documentary, tells their story

Ryan Gilbey

01, Nov, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Dear Future Children review – profiles of young people who are out to change the world
This dynamic documentary from 22-year-old director Franz Böhm captures the struggle for justice by three young women in Hong Kong, Chile and Uganda

Phuong Le

19, Nov, 2021 @11:20 AM

Article image
Mussolini’s Sister review – interestingly quirky portrait of a grumpy octogenarian
This acute documentary gets under the surface of its Palestinian film-maker’s sharp-tongued grandmother to the loneliness and resentment within

Phuong Le

20, Sep, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
The Pearl Button review – choppy waters
Awkward documentary combining suppressed Chilean seafarers with Pinochet’s habit of dumping bodies in watery graves

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

20, Mar, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Western Stars review – Springsteen's nuggets of cowboy wisdom
In a barn with his wife, an orchestra and a new set of cowboy-inflected songs, the Boss reflects magnetically on past demons and meditates on age

Cath Clarke

24, Oct, 2019 @12:00 PM