There are always questions to be asked about how much a documentary should merely portray the events as they happen or how much the documentarian should allow their own person experiences and biases to shape a narrative within the events. It is important to note that these are not questions with answers and that could be frustrating but I still intend to ask it because frankly, I don't even know what I think on the subject but I get the feeling that the team behind The Mole Agent would have something fascinating to say on the subject.
The Mole Agent is the latest feature by Chilean documentarian Maite Alberdi. It concerns Sergio, a retired, recent-widower who is tasked by a private detective to go undercover by a private detective in a retirement home in order to determine if an anonymous client's mother is being properly cared for. Along the way, he grows close to numerous residents and staff of the home all the while, trying not to get caught.
The refreshing quality of The Mole Agent is that it allows the story to be told from its agent's perspective but also that it treats all the home's residents as individuals who, under other circumstances, could probably fill a feature with stories of their own. The cuteness of the spy/noir pastiche trappings could lean into a level of patronising the subjects but it never feels like it treats anyone as less-than human or less-than important in their own right.
Its anti-dramatic approach does make it feel minor in comparison to heavy-hitters of the Oscars Documentary race this year like Collective and Time but it precisely that low-key quality that makes it so special. This is not a bold, shocking revelation about elder abuse, not that it is not a problem but mostly in this one facility it does not seem to be an issue, but more a quiet plea not to simply make your relatives someone else's problem when they can no longer care for themselves. This plaintiff quality is very charming and definitely helps focus the piece, especially when it can start to drift away from its focus.
The main issue that The Mole Agent has is that it sometimes feels like if it could just present its stories without needing to adhere to any kind of genre format, it could be a very affecting look at the way people can age out of society's focus. As it is, it manages this but any time it steps out of the realm of documentary and into more staged drama, it loses that authenticity. And yet, for every person like myself who finds this compromise of documentary and drama a little disappointing at times, I can fully see it bringing in viewers who might have otherwise not given this a look so for that reason, it's hard to argue against it.
This is very much an acquired taste. Some might find the stylised ‘detective' approach a little off-putting, especially as once he's in the actual facility, it never feels like there's actual jeopardy towards him being caught and 99% of the filming is done by the film crew and not his covert spy camera. But for anyone willing to look past an occasional reliance on stylistic ticks, there's a beautiful, beating heart underneath. Not the most bombastically shocking documentary that there'll ever be but I don't think it's trying to be that and I think it's to its credit that it doesn't feel a need to try.
The Mole Agent is out now.
The Mole Agent is available now