The Mole Agent – Documentary

This is my favourite documentary of the year so far. It’s funny in parts, very moving and perceptive about ageing, about men and women and about loneliness. I really loved it.


As it settles into its groove and, I guess, as the cameraperson settles into its locale, it becomes increasingly lovely to look at as well. All in all a total joy, and one which held my attention for 90 minutes. Not many documentaries can do that.


If I’m being picky, I’d say the one glitch about it is that it has a gimmick at its heart – one that feels contrived by the film makers and shapes the tone and feel and look of some of the early filming.


Without plot-spoiling, the gimmick is around the way in which the central character, 83 year old Sergio, initially comes to the home. He’s introduced as the eyes and ears of an outside investigator looking into claims of ill treatment and theft at the home. It’s a shame he’s introduced in that way and that our view of the home is initially shaped around looking for abuse. Here he is receiving a pair of recording spy glasses from his supposed employer.


As so often with gimmicks, they tend to be fun for the film maker to conceive and shoot but sometimes aren’t so important to the audience. The problem with them, as here, is it can set a viewer wondering what else is real, what else has been contrived and how much that matters. That would be unfortunate if it undermined our enjoyment of the many wonderful things here.


To be fair to the film makers, I’m guessing they might not have got very far if they’d approached potential funders with a pitch of “an 83 year old man’s initial impressions of life in a care home”.


As the film goes on, the gimmick is largely abandoned and we see a beautifully shot exploration of life, love, death, loneliness and longing in a Chilean old people’s home.


The heart of the film are the interactions we see between Sergio – the newcomer to the home – and the other, largely female, residents. He’s such a nice man and such a gently inquisitive and perceptive interlocutor that his exploration of the home would by itself provide a film without the gimmick. There’s something kind and wise about him, slightly priestly in the best sense.


I felt a bit sorry for the staff at the home who appeared genuinely caring and diligent – no doubt on rubbish wages – because they had been misled about the purpose of the filming and because they’ve initially been introduced to us as working at a home suspected of abuse. Wrongly, it turns out.


I wondered in passing about consents – particularly around those residents with cognitive impairment. And there’s a bloody big finger of guilt pointed at all the offspring who never come to visit and never call – there’s some heartbreaking stuff there where one of the staff (I think) phones in regularly purporting to be the mother of one of the confused residents to give her someone to talk to and make her feel somebody cares.


There are scenes of birthday parties and of funeral parties which are genuinely moving, mostly because we see them through Sergio’s gentle eyes – and because we see those eyes shedding a tear.


Overall, the gimmicky stuff is a quibble and the film as a whole is a beauty.