Today, there are over 45 million people over the age of 65 living in the U.S. In the next 10 years, that number is projected to increase by another 18 million. There have been a number of films and TV series of late dealing with the ageing and retirees (Netflix’s Grace and Frankie being a particularly popular comedy series). As this year’s awards season approaches, two nominated films take very different approaches to the question of ageing and how society treats our elderly populations.
The Mole Agent (Chile) is a funny and touching documentary that has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The film tells the story of Romulo, a private investigator, who needs someone to go undercover in a nursing home to check on the treatment of a client’s mother. He places an ad seeking men between 80 and 90 for the job and hires Sergio, a straight-laced independent man in his 80s for the task. While the COVID pandemic has brought to light the problems and challenges for nursing homes, elder abuse has been an on-going and serious problem for some problem, so the film sets up our expectations about what Sergio will find. Romulo teaches Sergio the tricks of his trade and how to communicate clandestinely with him about what is happening inside the home. While the residents were told they would be the subject of a documentary, they didn’t know that Sergio’s goal was to check on the treatment of the residents. The Mole Agent, however, reveals not the problems or abuses one might come to expect, rather the joys, the gossip and the microcultures inside of this Chilean nursing home. In discussing her film, director Maite Alberdi has pointed out that “in many countries, to be in a retirement home is a symbolic death because it means to be disconnected from family and social and cultural life. So the challenge is how to maintain people’s relationship to their previous life and societies, even if they are not living with their families.” The film shows how workers and residents build bonds and find happiness in the later stages of life. Alberdi found as well that there are no age limits for new experiences or for starting new lives. Her hope is that audiences will come away with this message and see the many ways that people can live out their lives in their twilight years.
On the other end of the spectrum, J Blakeson’s dark comedy I Care a Lot has as its background story, the targeted abuse of seniors and the scams that are perpetrated against them to steal the assets. Rosamund Pike, who won this year’s Golden Globe for best actress, stars as Marla, a
professional scammer who makes a living by convincing courts to grant her guardianship over elderly people whom she falsely claims are unable to care for themselves. She then has them sedated and put into a nursing home and she proceeds to sell off their assets and belongings. She runs afoul, however, when one elderly woman whom she has committed turns out to be the mother of a mafioso, who has it out for her. To be sure, the film is not a sociological exploration of the elderly as victims of greed or lax regulations and oversights, rather it’s a taught action-thriller that only uses this issue as a backdrop. Nevertheless, it brings to light the issue of how some of the most vulnerable people in our society can be taken advantage of.
Watching these two films should compel us reflect on what is revealed about society based on the treatment of the most frail and vulnerable members of that community.
By Dr. David Coury
David Coury is a Professor of Humanities (German) and Global Studies and also Co-Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Partnerships. Additionally, he is the director of the Green Bay Film Society, whose International Film Series screens international and independent films twice a month at the Neville Public Museum. Admission is free and all films are open to the public.