As the familiar tune of a Pink Panther-like score chimes in, and the domineering image of Al Pacino as Tony Montana emblazoned on a large $100 bill stretches across the screen, the opening minutes of The Mole Agent make one thing very clear: a humorous absurdity will be central to this unconventional spy story. Director Maite Alberdi wastes no time with pleasantries in her straightforward document of an octogenarian agent going undercover at a nursing home suspected of mistreating its elderly inhabitants. Throughout the film, she takes special caution not to interfere or insert herself into the strange investigation our aged protagonist has been tasked with. She makes exactly one appearance in the film, clarifying to the older man’s daughter the precautions being taken in their filming of the whole charade, and assuring of their ability to freely traverse the suspected nursing home without fear of being ousted or undone. No explanation is given to the pretense under which they’ve been allowed permission to follow this elderly operative, but all is done with the intent of immersing us into this unexpectedly quirky story, beginning from the very first scene in which we are thrust into the recruitment process for our senior mole agent.
An ad reads: “Eldery male needed. Retired, between 80 and 90 years old. Independent, discrete, and competent with technology.” Without yet knowing who or why these older gentlemen have been gathered we are given an impression of why they all have answered this most peculiar ad. Most of them express some form of regret, in that their age is a clear hurdle in finding some form of employment. While not the subject of this documentary primarily, echoes of listlessness and lost purpose are pervasive throughout the film, and this moment is the first indication of that central theme. Immediately after that, we are shown that “competent with technology” was a very loose requirement in this queer casting call. As with every generation, the oldest will always struggle to understand and utilize the latest and greatest offerings of modern innovations. This is especially true now, where technology has advanced so far that even those who differ in but a decade of age demonstrate a colossal rift in their abilities with the everchanging market of invention. For those of us literate enough in basic smartphone usage, there is much comedy to be found in these elderly gentlemen’s total mishandling of the ubiquitous devices. The most promising of these individuals is Sergio, an 83-year-old widower, looking for a new lease on life as the weight of his wife’s recent passing keeps him discontented and depressed.
This vote of confidence doesn’t make him a certifiable spy just yet, though. He’s no ace with an iPhone either, cluelessly struggling to figure out how to FaceTime his exceedingly patient employer and instead solely opening his camera function despite explicit instruction. He seems even more befuddled when handed genuine spy equipment to play with, like the thick-rimmed glasses with a hidden camera embedded for secretive recording. After much humorous fumbling, it’s clear that Sergio is up for the job, and has more than enough gumption to make up for his shaky gadgetry skills. The mission is to infiltrate a local nursing home and to locate the elderly mother of the undisclosed clientele, whose chief concern revolves around alleged mistreatment of her mother and potential robberies. It’s almost too fantastical to be true, and to an extent, it is. Such suspicions are commonplace when it comes to those who are unable to care for themselves. Though we have the utmost faith in the hardworking people of the medical field, and particularly those looking after our bedridden and elderly, there are many cases where heinous individuals or institutions will take advantage of their inherent vulnerabilities and exploit them for all they’re worth. On the surface, Sergio’s first few days in the unassuming nursing home seem not so worthy of note, but as he begins his investigative sleuthing, he unearths intriguing evidence.
The first half of the film plays out largely like a traditional spy caper as pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. The hurdles of both inconclusive findings and Sergio’s continuing struggle to grasp the necessary subtlety required of his role lead to a number of dead ends, but the unassuming nature of it all remains endearing throughout. It’s only after Sergio begins to ingratiate himself with the occupants of the home that the dastardly truth of it all starts to boil to the surface. The harsh, emotionally debilitating environment of the nursing home is not perpetuated by the nursing staff of the affectionate manager who regularly converses and entertains the residents. In fact, we are shown a number of ways the workers demonstrate their complete hospitality to the retirees, through many celebratory events and nothing but the utmost kindness and patience instilled in their every interaction. The true ghoul of the nursing home is the specter of loneliness; the turmoil of abandonment; and the heartbreak of withering away. So many of the kind, isolated inhabitants of this supposed establishment of mistreatment are only plagued by one thing: the devastating but exclusive option for those who cannot care for themselves and without anyone to care for them. Even if they have loving family members left, as one of the residents puts it, they all have their own lives and commitments with their own new families, and can’t be expected to come visit every Sunday. And so, you don’t reproach them. You can’t.
The sinister reality is that any mistreatment the client’s mother has been receiving is not at the behest of the nursing home, but by life itself, and even her own hand, at least as Sergio sees it. By the end, he’s so disheartened having seen all these wonderful, wise individuals having lost any reason for living beyond existence itself, as they while away each day only having the end to look forward to. It’s an unexpected discovery for this plucky detective story, but a sadly unsurprising one for those who have witnessed the listless existence of those at the end of their rope. It’s a depressing fact of life, one that can only be mitigated, and only by those of us still in good enough health to consider and care for those who have done their share of living already. As Sergio’s investigation comes to a close, he has not unearthed some great conspiracy to defraud the elderly patrons of this quiet nursing home, but instead the sad truth of mortality, and the inevitably of forsaken opportunity. He departs his mission with a job well done, but also with an inescapable cloud of forlornness hanging above. He promises his new friends he’ll be sure to come and visit, and we are left only to hope he follows through, as no one else is bound to.