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The Charming 80-Year-Old Spy Who Went Undercover in a Retirement Home

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

The Sundance documentary The Mole Agent follows an 83-year-old man who goes undercover in a retirement home to investigate mistreatment.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sergio is 83, and hes about to become a first-time spyif only he can figure out how to use FaceTime. Seated across from Romulo, the private investigator who hired him, Sergio opens his iPhone camera app and lifts up the device, trying to understand why seeing his boss pictured on his screen isnt the same thing as video-chatting him.

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Older peoples struggles with technology, and in a larger sense the regrettable splintering of communication between the elderly and the young, are at the heart of The Mole Agent, a charming documentary that follows Sergio as he goes undercover in a retirement home. His mission is to investigate whether one of the female residentshis targetis being mistreated by the nurses, a task that was assigned to Romulo by the targets suspicious daughter. Romulo puts out a call for men between the ages of 80 and 90, turning up a series of curious candidates. He eventually chooses Sergio, a soft-spoken Chilean gentleman who lost his wife just months earlier and seems eager for the diversion.

Obviously, Sergio is in most ways the anti-spy. Romulo equips him with a special pen and pair of spectacles that both contain tiny built-in video cameras, but Sergio can hardly figure out how to use them. Once he moves into the nursing home, Sergio has no trouble acting courteous and cordial among his new hallmates, but he has a hard time being discreet; he often sends Romulo voice memo updates while seated in the homes public hallway for all to listen in though neither the nurses nor residents ever seem to notice or care. Its fresh and funny to watch an ostensibly serious espionage plot unfold in this gentle, slow-moving community, and the films charm and humor lie in its embrace of this contradiction.

Elderly people have long been of disproportionate interest to artists for this reason. Its easy to make a clich out of them, collapsing them into caricatures of the cutesy old couple or the crotchety grump shaking his cane in reproach. Theres also a tendency to fetishize old folks appearances: their wrinkles, their anachronistic clothing, their hunched postureslook how adorable! How peculiar! How endearing! As a society, were so accustomed to infantilizing images that many slip by imperceptibly, seeming intrinsic to elderly narratives in general.

Its tricky that the funniest and sweetest aspects of the story do hinge around Sergios age. Its no big spoiler to report that what ultimately allows Sergio a breakthrough in his investigation is his ability to empathize with the precise needs of his targetand the homes community as a wholeand those needs turn out to be rather different than what her daughter had originally surmised. In one memorable scene, as the residents celebrate the nursing homes anniversary with a party, the nurses elect Sergio as King. He dons a plastic crown and dances with a series of blushing, giggling ladies, doddering around the room with panache. The risk of triteness here is very real, but thats not to say that its charms are ageist. Like Sergio on his mission, The Mole Agent lets us surveil the risks and find the fun in it anyway.

Read more on: thedailybeast, retirement


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