Once upon a time, there was a young woman and an old man. The woman was deeply concerned for her aging mother, who would need placement in an assisted living room before dementia and general old age set in too firmly for her to live elsewhere. The old man was hired (by a private investigator, working as a proxy) as a secret agent within the nursing home – the better to keep watch over the woman as she settled into a new life. Shockingly, all of this really did happen, and we see it all happen in director Maite Alberdi’s documentary The Mole Agent. Indeed, the question of whether this really is a documentary is one of the more beguiling things about it.

The answer to that question – of whether Alberdi stumbled upon the kind of stranger-than-fiction true story that only happens once in a blue moon or conceived of all this from whole cloth with a talented crew – should not technically matter, by the way. A movie is a movie is a movie, as they say, and a filmmaker’s experimentation to get there, though important to the end result, is almost an aside. On one hand, the audience might not be able to tell immediately whether this film, which purports to be a documentary, is telling the unvarnished truth. On the other hand, the events of the movie do seem to have happened to some degree, in that we’re seeing real people interact within the walls of the nursing home.

At worst, then, Alberdi’s film is a mix of documentary and reenactment – with the weight, perhaps, distributed more toward the latter than a lot of other documentaries can claim. It’s a fascinating approach, and it helps that the story being either told or reenacted is the purest definition of “beguiling.” The young woman is Dalal, whose mother Sonia Perez has just recently taken up residence in an assisted living home. The daughter believes her mom, whose dementia has become quite pronounced recently, could be mistreated by the nursing staff and other residents. She hires Romulo Aitken, a private investigator who cooks up the truly oddball scheme involving a “mole” and regular reports on activity within the home.

That man, and our primary subject, is 83-year-old Sergio Chamy, who does not really qualify for placement in the home but is hired anyway, under the guise of having no immediate family to take care of him (Aitken will go undercover himself when necessary to pose as Chamy’s “favorite godson”). Of the handful of elderly men who answered the newspaper ad, Chamy is the one who seems to have the best recall and the most promising ability to send reports through a smartphone app, which really makes him the only candidate. He’ll be discreet in finding and following the older Perez, although there is some gallows humor right upfront: He enters her room and insists on keeping her company.

Curiously, the target of this surveillance barely factors into the movie that is, theoretically, supposed to be about a scheme to surveil her. This is because Chamy’s original plan meets detours and distractions along the way. He becomes unexpectedly involved in the lives and, on at least one occasion, deaths of the residents of the home. Since Aitken makes it clear that every detail of his day is important, Chamy keeps a running diary that often – sometimes for the entire length of the day – has nothing to do with his central goal. He becomes particularly interested in Rubira Olivares, an aging woman with dementia, and, in the film’s best scene, returns some sense to her existence through a kind of intervention.

The story does eventually come back around to the surveillance of Perez, but it isn’t in the way anyone will be anticipating. With Chamy’s final report to Aitken, let us say that the movie acknowledges the morbid absurdity of this entire set-up, while also advocating for better care of elder mental health in a manner that is surprisingly, disarmingly moving. Questions abound regarding the behind-the-scenes details of The Mole Agent, but it is clear that the story has come together in a fashion that resembles lightning in a bottle. It’s a special kind of document – delightful, sad, intriguing and ultimately quite relevant.

A special kind of document: delightful, sad, intriguing and ultimately quite relevant.
80 %
beguiling documentary
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