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El agente topo film still with Sergio and Detective Romulo (left to right). Courtesy of The Sundance Film Institute.
El agente topo film still with Sergio and Detective Romulo (left to right). Courtesy of The Sundance Film Institute.

El agente topo: The story of the elderly spy that infiltrates a retirement home

El agente topo is a film noir documentary about the elderly secret agent who goes undercover at one of Chile's retirement homes.

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El agente topo (The Mole Agent), directed by Maite Alberdi, follows 83-year-old Sergio, who is hired by private investigator Detective Romulo to infiltrate and report on a Chilean senior citizen home. Alberdi brings film noir stylizations to documentary filmmaking, using sharp shadow contrasts from windows, casting the iconic noir visual effect. The story itself revolves around a classic noir trope: a young woman approaching a detective with a case. In this film, the case is to investigate potential elder abuse toward the young woman’s mom. Detective Romulo’s office reflects the usual good-versus-evil theme in crime films with a Scarface poster of Tony Montana on a U.S. dollar. The difference, however, is the lighthearted and comedic tone of the film.

After placing a job ad in a local newspaper, Detective Romulo asks each eldery applicant about their capacity to use a cell phone and send video messages. Each applicant, being over the age of 70, hilariously struggles to use the phone. In a particularly funny moment, Sergio is being taught how to use spy camera glasses. Alberdi seamlessly cuts to footage from the glasses revealing the film crew sitting behind Detective Romulo. At times, the meticulous cinematography feels like a narrative film, but in a few precious moments, such as the one with the spy glasses, Alberti highlights the comedic and documentary elements of the film.

Sergio is a charmingly terrible spy. Alberdi follows Sergio as he stalks the client’s mom - checking to ensure her medicine is being given to her and ensuring that her room is clean. He often follows the woman just steps behind her and constantly walks into her room to check up on her. At one point, the woman expresses to her friends that she is worried about Sergio following her. Sergio moves on to speak with the woman’s friends and neighbors to inquire about her state. Intermittently, there are scenes where Sergio answers calls or relays voice messages to Detective Romulo about his findings. Those recordings, however, tend to be absurdly long messages where Sergio explains his entire day down to what he ate for lunch.

Alberdi is able to capture the whole scope of characters and situations at the senior citizen home through the lens of Sergio, as one of the more lucid members of the community. He ends up catching the eye of a woman. The relationship doesn’t materialize, however, as Sergio is still healing after having lost his wife a few months prior. Sergio even reveals to his daughter that he uses the spy gig to distract him from his recent loss. As Sergio meets all of the members at the home, the theme of loss becomes apparent. He speaks with bed-ridden seniors and those with worsening memory loss as they all express the loneliness of having lost a partner or missing their children. One member of the nursing home spends every afternoon at the front gates begging passersby to take her to her mother’s house.

Sergio’s ultimate discovery is that, while the client’s mom isn’t being abused by the staff at the senior home, she is being neglected by the daughter, who never visits her mother. Like many of the members in the home, the mother misses her daughter and feels the loss of their relationship. Overall, the film’s main revelation is that seniors experience loss of mobility, mental capacity, and loss of connection to their own families when they are placed in retirement homes. As a viewer, it leaves you with the question, “When was the last time you visited your parents or grandparents?”

El agente topo will premiere nationally on the PBS documentary film series POV | American Documentary.

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