For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…
The Mole Agent
1 nomination for Bes Documentary Feature
The Mole agent is an absolutely delightful, creatively-crafted tale. This Chilean documentary somehow didn’t make it to the Best Foreign Film shortlist, which wouldn’t shock me much except for the fact that the only nominee I have thus far seen in that category, Another Round, was very stupid. Still, the documentary nomination is well-deserved.
In the movie, we follow an elderly gentleman named Sergio who is hired by a private investigator to go undercover at a nursing home. A woman has hired the PI (Romulo) to uncover potential mistreatment of her mother. After some rudimentary training on how to use his new spy technology (glasses with a built-in camera, and a mysterious device called a “cellphone”), Sergio is on the case! We follow along as he shuffles through the halls and prepares daily written reports for Romulo. Of course, Sergio isn’t exactly a career spy, much to Romulo’s frustrations. Daily reports include detailed inventory of what he ate that day, difficulty locating and identifying his target because all these old ladies look alike, and excited tales of being crowned Homecoming King (or the equivalent) and getting to dance with all the ladies. It’s not exactly smooth sailing. Sergio hits a roadblock and he discovers that his target is basically antisocial and hates him, and Romulo has to keep reminding him to both stay on track, but also not be so dang obvious by walking up to staff and asking about the target’s medication. The filmmakers play some great spy music every time Sergio gets serious about his spy work, which contrasts perfectly with the footage of him basically just slow-walking around like a weirdo so he can points his spy glasses towards the action. Along the way, Sergio makes tons of friends (even romances?) with his fellow residents, and teaches us valuable lessons about humanity.
My husband was in the room but not really paying attention as I was watching this, and every now and then I would try to fill him in. “Look! The old ladies all have crushes on him cuz he’s the new guy!” I’d exclaim.
He’d furrow his brow and ask, “So what is this movie about again?” I tried to explain the basic premise a handful of times, and he still wasn’t getting it. What was the point?
Good question? What was the point? I think, though plot is of course a fun caper featuring a lovable amateur spy, the movie is really about what it’s like to get older. The spy mission is only the skeleton, but the flesh of the film is all of the experiences and revelations from our elderly cast. It is a population often swept under the rug and ignored, as the film painfully reminds us. But it is also a vibrant, fun-loving population that doesn’t deserve the loneliness inflicted upon it by the rest of society. It’s a population that has to watch its friends’ bodies and minds deteriorate and often parish completely. This pain is revealed in some of our toughest scenes. In one scene, Sergio wanders into a room with women who are so incapacitated they can’t leave bed, which bums him out. But most of Sergio’s scenes involve interacting with two new friends, one who suffers from dementia and can’t remember her family members, and another whose mind is so gone that she thinks her mother is coming to pick her up (the staff call her regularly pretending to be her mother so she has someone to talk to, since nobody ever visits her. STOP CUTTING ONIONS!) But right along these painful experiences are moments of pure joy. One resident is a truly gifted poet who entertains them all with her words. The staff throws legitimately badass parties. Romances blossom like a soap opera. And Sergio, of course, is having a blast on his spy mission.
There is a scene at the very beginning that really captures the spirit of the film. Sergio’s daughter comes in to meet with the PI and the documentary crew before agreeing to drop her father off. She is worried for him. They just lost her mother (Sergio’s wife) 3 months prior, and she didn’t want to lose him, too. She was worried that he would be lonely or isolated or mistreated, or that he was being taken advantage of. Sergio reassures her. He says that, since his wife died, he was, frankly, just really bored. He can only go on so many walks. And walks can only be so entertaining. He has nothing to do but sit and think about how sad he was about his loss. OR, since starting his super secret training, he finally had something to do and to think about. He was stimulated. He was having fun. He had a purpose and was excited about his day. The daughter gives her blessing. This spirit, one of older people balancing their love of life with the restraints of aging, permeates the rest of the film, and is captured beautifully.
The film left me very curious about the production itself. It’s unclear to the viewer how, exactly, they managed to make it all work. We know the documentary crew was in the nursing home openly filming with permission, but we don’t know under what pretense. Were the staff in on it? Or were they told they were filming for something else and didn’t mention the mole agent? We know that Sergio knew about the documentary crew, because they’re there filming during his early interviews and training and at one point speak up to tell Sergio and his daughter they they’ll be there onsite to keep an eye on things. But we’re left wondering whether the PI mission itself was real or not. I was waiting for some sort of big reveal at the end, but we never got one. The movie played it straight. (I did a very quick Google search to look for answers and nothing immediate jumped out, but I’m sure the answers are out there.) In the end, I don’t think it matters how contrived the situation is or isn’t. Because Sergio’s interactions, experiences, and revelations were all very real, and that’s what matters here.
Highly recommended film, competing in a very strong competitive category. Well worth your time.