There’s a certain immersive thrill that comes from documentaries that hide themselves, and “The Mole Agent” epitomizes that appeal. Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s delightful character study unfolds as an intricate spy thriller, in which a sweet-natured 83-year-old widower infiltrates a nursing home at the behest of a private detective. The plan goes awry with all kinds of comical and touching results, so well-assembled within a framework of fictional tropes that it begs for an American remake.
But as much as such a product might appeal to companies hungry for content, it would be redundant from the outset, because “The Mole Agent” is already one of the most heartwarming spy movies of all time — a rare combination of genres that only works so well because it sneaks up on you.
It starts with an unusual solicitation: Detective Rómulo Aitken, a former criminal investigator, puts an advertisement in the newspaper for a man between the ages of 80 and 90 years to complete a three-month gig. From his noir-shaded office, he interviews a series of curious gentlemen intrigued by the prospects of a new opportunity at their age; as the montage of conversations pile up and a hokey espionage theme carries them along, “The Mole Agent” establishes the charming, playful energy that carries it through the ensuing 84 minutes.
Rómulo eventually settles on the affable Sergio Chamy — both men are only identified by their first names, a tongue-in-cheek device undone only by the movie’s credits — and immediately gets to work. A scrawny fellow whose dazed expression makes it hard to tell if he fully grasps the challenge at hand, Sergio seems like just the right sort of unsuspecting figure to carry Rómulo’s undercover agenda. As the detective explains, his client is the daughter of a woman at the San Francisco Nursing Home concerned that her mother has been the victim of abuse. Sergio must infiltrate the home, get close with the woman, and report on his findings every step of the way.
Rómulo outfits his agent with a range of hidden cameras (one embedded in a pen, the other in his glasses), and while that high-tech assemblage might be easy enough for 007 to get to work, Sergio’s biggest challenge involves the use of a smartphone. The gags write themselves — the luddite spook — and play out just long enough for him to get the gist of his new toys so the mission can advance to the next level. Assuaging the concerns of Sergio’s daughter, Rómulo explains that Sergio must report on his mission every step of the way, while a film crew — ostensibly there under the pretenses of making a traditional documentary on the nursing home — captures his progress.
Sergio’s a dutiful soldier, but once he arrives at the nursing home, the mission hits all kinds of snags, mostly because he’s such a charmer that he can’t help but become the center of attention. A kind-hearted man who brings solace to many of the lonely figures at the home, Sergio submits lengthy audio reports to Romulo via WhatsApp, documenting his aimless days as the detective grows frustrated over the lack of progress. The results are exactly as delightful as that sounds: Sergio’s voiceover becomes the driving force of the narrative, as his innocent, meandering perspective takes control, and the movie keeps opening itself up to the wistful and melancholic mini-stories of the various new friends Sergio brings into his orbit.
Nevertheless, while Sergio may be slow-moving, he’s not irresponsible, and eventually spots his target — a reclusive woman named Sonía Perez, who evades his friendly advances (“Don’t be so obvious,” Rómulo urges him) as Sergio becomes convinced that she must be hiding something. Through a series of entrancing developments, Sergio tails his subject around the home (one shot, in which Sonía slowly makes her way across the patio while Sergio follows close by, epitomizes the appeal of many punchlines throughout).
It’s here that “The Mole Agent” undergoes a quiet transformation. Although Sergio’s mission yields real results, they take the story in a beguiling new direction, more focused on poignant observations about the solitary milieu than the mystery at hand. While Sonía shrugs him off, Sergio befriends many of the other residents, including a senile woman who engages in imaginary phone calls with her dead mother and another one, lifelong virgin Bertita, who falls so hard for him she starts to speculate about marriage. In time, Sergio’s so popular that he’s even crowned the king of the nursing home in a hilarious pageantry that once again leads him away from his job. At the same time, it puts him on track for a new one — embracing his mortality, and finding a fresh sense of purpose in brightening up the lives of others in need of his companionship. “Your brain can really betray you,” Sergio muses, as he grows more confident about his true calling.
As much as “The Mole Agent” relishes the amusement baked into its scenario, Alberdi allows the reality of the setting to take hold — teary admissions of loneliness pierce the proceedings, followed by flashes of anger and even death, as Sergio’s diary entries grow more introspective and the referential genre flourishes give way to real life. “The Mole Agent” may not look like a documentary, but it builds to a poetic finale enmeshed in emotional authenticity.
Alberdi’s documentaries often utilize this delicate touch to explore unusual personal stories, from 2011’s “The Lifeguard” (exactly what it sounds like) to 2017’s “The Grown-Ups,” a lighthearted tale revolving around a group of middle-aged classmates at a school for Down’s Syndrome. “The Mole Agent” takes that potential and clarifies it, redefining narrative clichés by giving them fresh potential in a meaningful story.
Sergio may not have James Bond’s swagger, but there’s a galvanizing quality to his virtuous journey that goes one step further than your average hero’s path. Sergio doesn’t have to uncover all the clues to realize the real culprit — a lack of empathy for abandoned old souls — and he’s all too eager to save the day.
“The Mole Agent” premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It Is currently seeking U.S. distribution.