#FrancisOnFilm: The Mole Agent

05 February 2021

The Mole Agent, now available on streaming services, is a deftly charming documentary about a private investigator hired to find out whether elder abuse is happening at a nursing home in Chile. Directed by Maite Alberdi, the film features an elderly gentleman hired to become a resident of the home and observe events first-hand. Sergio is a recent widower in his eighties who applies for the job and takes it on with courtliness and grace.

The film is a poignant picture of life in the nursing home. There are residents without families to visit them and residents whose families never visit. There are residents with fading or faded physical and mental capacities. There are residents who pilfer little things that seem enticing.

Most residents are women and they are understandably excited by the presence of a gallant man in their mix. Though daily existence is generally marked by boredom, there are moments of sadness and death interspersed with moments of dancing and joy.

Yet deception is at the heart of The Mole Agent. When Sergio enters the home, he is introduced as a new resident. But he has come to the home as a spy, not to live out his remaining days. Sometimes, he is not very good at concealing his observations. Sometimes he violates the privacy of other residents. Most importantly, his conduct encourages others to rely on him as a friend and trust him with their affections. 

The deception is well intentioned, as Sergio has been hired to try to find out whether staff are mistreating residents. Nonetheless, it raises philosophical questions about trust beyond the straightforward question of whether lies can ever be justified by good intentions.

Trust involves the creation of expectations over time. As these expectations develop, we come to rely on each other. But this mutual reliance carries the risk of disappointment if our expectations are not well-grounded. When trust is not warranted, Annette Baier argues in her classic essay “Trust and Antitrust,” the appropriate response is not just disappointment, but a sense of betrayal.

Not everything Sergio does betrays others' expectations of him, and his revelations about the nursing home respect its residents. What he ultimately reveals is the kindness of the home’s staff—as well as the failures of families to maintain connections with their loved ones. Even after he leaves, Sergio continues to come back to visit the friends he made while he was at the home. In this respect, he does not completely violate the trust others place in him.

Nevertheless, Sergio’s presence in the nursing home is a violation of trust. As a mole, pretending to be someone who will continue to be an ongoing part of the other residents' lives, he gains access to private spaces under false pretences. The emotional attachments he subsequently develops are built on this deception and come with the added risk that he will be meaningful to his companions in a way that they are not meaningful to him. In this way, their trust in Sergio is not warranted. By entering the home under false pretences, he treats others as mere means to an end and not as fully informed agents in themselves.

Nursing homes are especially risky contexts for trust. Residents are physically dependent on others for care. With diminishing or fluctuating cognitive capacities, they may be unable to assess whether others are trustworthy. Expectations may be fragile; residents decline or die, and staff turnover is high. Small pleasures may be especially meaningful—and the disappointment felt more keenly if they turn out to be hollow. Given these enormous risks, it is especially troubling when nursing homes become contexts in which betrayals of trust occur.

The Mole Agent was made before Covid revealed the truly dire situation in nursing homes across the globe. About 40% of U.S. deaths have been linked to nursing homes; the figures worldwide are similarly devastating. Surveillance techniques used in nursing homes to monitor residents for risks of falls and wandering outside have drawn critical attention for violation of patient dignity and for the likelihood that they contribute to custodial maintenance rather than humane care. Recent research at Stanford is exploring whether robots may help nursing homes deliver care more safely—and, not incidentally, more cheaply too. Covid, surveillance, and robots all raise broader questions about whether we can trust nursing homes to serve the best interests of their residents.

The nursing home in The Mole Agent harks back to an apparently happier, pre-pandemic world. But the small-scale deception at its premise raises an important question: what should we be doing to gather the information we need and make the social changes that could prevent the tragedies that are ongoing for nursing home residents and their families today? Are these circumstances so serious that deception like The Mole Agent is permissible? Perhaps—but if so, we should be especially careful to ensure that these methods are in the interests of residents rather than designed for cost control or convenience.

I have not been blogging much lately. Sheltering at home and watching films on streaming services is much less fun than actually going to theaters. I’ll be watching Sundance festival films this year from my laptop without the buzz of audiences and the discovery of films like The Mole Agent (which I saw at Sundance 2020). But I’m realizing that I need to make do with what I have, hope for what will come, and that philosophy matters now more than ever.

Comments (2)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, February 6, 2021 -- 9:50 AM



You have been missed! Thanks for writing this up. I did not catch this on PBS but streamed it last night.

I 'm not sure I understand this film as having anything to do with trust or betrayal.

I think most viewers will see an emotional story of loss and loneliness with several levels of cinematic tension. This gets very deep when early on the main character is given a James Bond type camera pen and pair of Google glass only to expose the documentary camera crew and director. The director also breaks scene at this point speaking off camera. From here on the viewer is drawn into the moral choices of each and every character on shot or off.

It's noteworthy that the writer and director, Maite Alberdi, took over 300 hours of film to get these 90 minutes of action. Pablo Valdés' cinematography is prize worthy. The drama, screen play and artistry are fantastic.

If anyone finishes the credit reel here and thinks - my god we need robots in nursing homes pronto, I will eat my laptop. Though moral philosophy bears heavily on the movie it isn’t with respect to trust but rather moral courage.

Sergio, the mole agent, rarely misrepresents himself, in a moral sense, to the residents of the nursing home. In fact, if the final cut is any indication and granted it might not be… the residents and Sergio formed a bond that transcended Sergio’s surveillance. In the literal sense of betrayal, don't we all misrepresent ourselves when hired to an employers expectations. The agent here has a job and a complimentary and uncompromising moral center. The employer is the one who breaks trust and responsibility don't you think?

The story line of Rubira is the key here along with a final scene in which Sergio himself breaks down.

There are two unseen characters here that supersede Sergio. One is the client, who is represented by the private investigator. The other is Sergio’s wife who passed just 4 months prior to the action in the film. Both weigh heavily on the storyline and growth in Sergio – which is the profound and telling punchline. Sergio finds solace from his wife’s passing and meaning in his experience and choices inside the nursing home.

I’ll save more detail for those who have not seen this film… but do see it. This is a very important film that tells a tale of universal humanity.

If philosophical tendrils must creep in this movie then the Stanford Prison Experiment of Philip Zimbardo is germane where moral philosophic arguments of trust are lacking. That Sergio strikes back at his mission is as interesting as any Stanford freshman owning up to being a prison guard. I don’t think this movie could have been made in the United States. Even in Chile it is unlikely at best.

I did see a troika of Covid streams a couple months back from home... Cold War, Thunder Road and Toni Erdmann. All of which are fodder for philosophizing through Covid19 as well.

I'm wondering if you saw Nomadland? That looks like a winner. Hopefully there will be more #FrancisOnFilm to get us through these times.

francislp's picture


Wednesday, February 10, 2021 -- 9:59 PM

Tim--thank you so much for

Tim--thank you so much for these wonderfully wise comments. You are, of course, right about so much of what you say. And especially that people really should try to find and see this film--it is so layered, in exactly the ways that have made us both think. But let me say more about trust. Sergio isn't just an ordinary employee, like another member of the staff. He's an employee, to be sure, but his "job" is to go into the home in a role that is deceptive. I didn't see the deception of the staff as problematic, in the way I saw the deception of the residents as problematic. They're vulnerable, and in a position in which he leads them on. They desperately want him as a friend, perhaps even a special sort of friend. He understands the moral complexity of this--that's part of why, in the end, he keeps coming back to visit. And part of the complexity is also that he is lonely (missing his wife), and that he valued the relationships he made while he was living in the home. I wasn't meaning to be critical of him so much as of the situation. And, regarding the situation, another set of absent characters are the family members who never come, who sought to get the absent employer to hire a Sergio to play that deceptive role. Perhaps they are the ones most violating trust!

Best, Leslie Francis. (more next month!)