Maite Alberdi’s The Mole Agent (El agente topo) is one of the funniest films of the year. Such a statement may feel odd, considering Alberdi’s project is also a probing documentary about aging, loneliness, and elderly care set at a Chilean senior home. But therein lies what makes her follow-up to The Grown Ups (Los niños, 2016) such a welcome surprise. With The Grown-Ups Alberdi had already established herself as an acute observer and chronicler of idiosyncratic spaces full of characters who are captivating precisely because they’re so authentically outlandish. And just as she was able to turn that documentary about a school for adults with Down syndrome into a heartwarming romantic comedy here she finds herself turning a portrait of a retirement community into a spy farce that treats its subjects with welcome care.
It also bears pointing out that, in its first few minutes, it’s hard to figure out how much of The Mole Agent is unscripted. Shot like a glossy brightly-lit modern noir, its opening scene introduces us to private investigator Romulo as he interviews a number of elderly applicants for a most curious assignment: going undercover at a retirement home. Still shots dominate the proceedings, with a nimble editing touch that make these opening moments feel closer to a Christopher Guest mockumentary than, well, an actual doc. It’s not until a survey of helpful spy gadgets (including a recording pen and a pair of glasses armed with a camera) make visible Alberdi’s crew around Romulo and Sergio, who’s to become the titular agent, that the documentary’s conceit makes itself known, adding a playfulness to the proceedings that’s key to the comedic sensibility of this most singular of projects.
If the comedy that opens the doc feels at times too broad (Sergio, as it turns out, is a tad technologically-challenged, fumbling his tech training, opening the camera app on his iPhone when instructed to FaceTime Romulo, then calling out his name when told he needs to actually “call” Romulo’s phone) it is never malicious nor exploitative. Instead, it finds in Sergio’s bumbling demeanor a heartwarming way to capture one way the recently widowed older man is lost and lonely, feeling out of step and out of time. His new assignment gives him something to do, a mission that’ll keep his mind away from his grief, putting his nurturing sensibility to good use.
Once Sergio infiltrates the retirement home (at the behest of an unseen client of Romulo’s who’s eager to find out whether her mother is getting the care she deserves) The Mole Agent becomes the unlikeliest of films: a spy documentary comedy that slowly reveals itself as a tender portrait of an aging population who are in dire need of connection and whose loneliness draws them toward both Sergio’s orbit and Alberdi’s cameras. Indeed, as much as Sergio’s mission and his painstaking commitment to unearthing any malfeasance at the home leads to plenty of comedic bits (he keeps sending Romulo detailed diary entries with little pertinent info as well as videos that don’t have any actual footage), it all seems like an excuse for Alberdi to illuminate what happens when family and society writ large forget and discard you.
But where, in someone else’s hands such a subject would be dour and depressing, The Mole Agent finds a lighthearted way to tackle what it means to grow old. The filmmaker’s rapport with her subjects — not to mention their outright indifference to her cameras — make many of the scenes throughout The Mole Agent feel like stolen moments. Were they scripted, they’d likely come off as too cloying or too absurd. Here, though, they are disarmingly endearing. Like when an older woman bursts into tears in front of Sergio after he encourages such a moment of catharsis. It’s a powerful moment for how unexpected it is. You wonder how many others would just as easily break down if only given the chance.
As likely to induce a hearty laugh as a good cry, Alberdi’s doc is a joy to watch — the kind of film that’ll force you to ponder your own mortality and the fallibility of your own body even as it leaves you with a wide-eyed grin.