Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 14, 2020 8:09 am 
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An old man is set to spy on an old folks' home in this Chilean documentary hybrid

This is a clever concept that doesn't quite convince, though it does wind up providing a series of disarmingly closeup glimpses of an old people's home at the level where the old people sit around and are lonely and sometimes quite lost, even though tended to caringly by staff.

Ostensibly, Silvio is hired by a private detective, Romulo, who in turn has been hired by a lady to check and see if her mother is being properly cared for in the home.

It's initially amusing to see half a dozen men ages 80-90 being interviewed for this job and trying to convince they're capable of being undercover agents. The guy chosen, Silvio, has a precise quality, is on the ball, tidily dressed, and mannerly: good choice! He even seems to pick up on how to use a smart phone and several spy recording devices. This whole thing is a very novel idea. However, the old folk's home plainly is aware that they're being filmed. What we see is not just from a hidden camera, though as part of the film we hear Silvio's phone calls and messages to his detective boss and see his secret videos. His tour of duty is to be three months.

There is one human value to Silvio's job. He has, reportedly, lost his wife just a few months earlier. It does him good to get out of the house, away from being constantly reminded of his late spouse. In the home there are 40 women and 4 men, and Silvio's instantly the most "eligible" man and thus the object of constant admiration, attention, even love from the old ladies. He is fussed over and celebrated - exaggeratedly so. He's made, like a prom king, "king" of the home, and later given a spectacular birthday party. He is to spend three months here. How sad the ladies will be to see him go!

The "blanco," the target, turns out to be a very unfriendly old lady, who rarely speaks to anyone and spends most of her time in her room. There is little to report on, but also nothing discernible wrong in her treatment. The bulk of what will seem a pretty long and repetitious 84 minutes is devoted to Silvio's interactions with the old ladies and the cameraman's observation of them.

Early on one lady observes that she finds it sad when a man who is capable of coping on his own chooses to check into a place like this, a very telling point. Silvio seems to be a great help here providing cheer and support to the others. Obviously this fills a need for him, too. He was lonely at home. He perhaps isn't here.

The filmmakers lean toward observation of old ladies who either are quite enamored of Silvio, or are losing their marbles. Various ones believe their mothers are still alive and keep calling for them, to be taken home. One of them cannot remember if her family has visited her or not. Silvio checks, and finds no one has visited her all year. It's pathetic and sad to contemplate such loneliness and uselessness. It's sad to realize that many old lives are like this and many old people's homes are like this. The cute premise of the film goes sour after a while, despite the self possession and good cheer of the protagonist.

The Mole Agent/El agente topo 84 mins., debuted Jan. 2020 at Sundance, playing at 15 other festivals, including New Directors/New Films, as part of the delayed virtual pandemic version of which it was screened for this review, chosen as Closing Night Film for ND/NF. Metacritic: 71%. Chile's Best International Feature Oscar entry.

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