One of the best movies contending for Oscars this season follows a solitary character struggling with the insurmountable loss of a loved one, while resisting the romantic overtures of a new companion. It takes place against a poetic backdrop populated by non-actors revealing the fragile nature of their lives. Their stories aren’t always uplifting or neat. But in their collective soul-searching, the movie finds hope in small, ineffable bursts of joy, even in the midst of broader existential gloom.
Many people combing through awards buzz might assume the above description belongs to Oscar heavyweight “Nomadland,” and it does, but there’s another movie in the conversation that hits those same beats with equal success. “The Mole Agent,” Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s tender, unpredictable tale of a man who infiltrates a nursing home at the behest of a private detective, deserves just as much attention from Academy members this season — and might even crack multiple categories, if voters do the right thing.
“The Mole Agent” is one of two non-fiction efforts to wind up on the Oscar shortlists for both documentary and international feature, alongside the dazzling Romanian vérité effort “Collective.” Both “The Mole Agent” and “Collective” push for engrossing, moment-to-moment storytelling devices to make their subjects engaging throughout. “Collective” transforms the experiences of unflappable investigative journalists and government crusaders into a bracing thriller loaded with conspiratorial dread and populist anger from start to finish. “The Mole Agent,” however, pulls off a trickier aesthetic balance: It starts as one movie and then transcends its limitations.
At first, Alberdi’s story follows the efforts of private eye Rómulo Aitke, who hires 83-year-old Sergio Chamy to go undercover at a nursing home and figure out whether an elderly woman there has been abused by the staff. Aitke, who has been hired by the woman’s adult child, comes across as a cartoonish Sam Spade wannabe overdosed on film noir: He occupies a cramped office surrounded by dramatic shadows and peers through the blinds as if danger lurks in every corner. His serious posture strikes a comical juxtaposition with his new hire, Chamy, a genial space cadet not entirely sure what he’s signed up to do. Aitke tasks Chamy with entering the nursing home disguised as a new resident, while using high-tech spy cams and covert voice memos to record his journey.
From the start, it’s clear that Chamy will have a rough time fulfilling his plan: The lovable luddite can hardly operate a mobile phone, much less the camera hidden in his glasses. With time, however, that amusing disconnect becomes secondary as Chamy forgoes his assignment and creates a new one. Having lost his wife months earlier, he finds an outlet for his grief in the opportunity to bring some measure of happiness to the nursing home, where loneliness and neglect percolate in a kind of geriatric Petri dish. Though he’s reticent to accept the affection of one woman who has spent decades of her life in the home, seemingly forgotten by the outside world, he’s not immune to her pain or its root cause.
The home is populated mostly by women, who spend their days lost in thought and essentially trapped by the minuscule environment around them. Chamy — more lovable naif than Lothario — does what he can to lift the mood, checking in with various residents and making sure they aren’t forgotten. All the while, Alberdi (who managed to film Sergio by pretending to work on a broader project about the setting), crafts a poignant chamber piece around Chamy’s journey, setting the remainder of the movie exclusively within the confines of the home. Her camera often peers at Chamy and the other residents through windows and doorways, capturing the claustrophobic nature of their backdrop, which amplifies the emotional effect whenever the man offers his companionship to those around him.
Little by little, Chamy’s relationship to his spy gig sours as he realizes a broader institutional problem that no detective work can solve. The nursing home may not be some devious criminal enterprise, but many of its residents have suffered from the disinterest of relatives who stuck them there long ago and moved on. At best, these institutions help frail people get the help they need; at worst, they’re a living grave, and it’s the discovery of this extreme that, at first, galvanizes Chamy to take action and then makes him appreciate the life he has left for himself.
“The Mole Agent” certainly deserves consideration for the two categories where it has been shortlisted, but as usual, those lists don’t tell the whole story. As a keen and intimate application of film language, it should be a genuine contender in other key categories — editing and cinematography among them — considering how well it manipulates form to make its surprising and infectious tale stick. (The most daring Academy members might even consider the movie’s screenplay.)
Alberdi’s work doesn’t have a big following around the world, but over the past decade, she’s developed an auteurist specificity to her approach. Movies like “La Once” (about old high school friends who continue to meet up each month in old age) and “The Grown-Ups” (following adults with Down syndrome who grew up together) are sweet character studies that similarly use a contained setting to tell complex stories about people grasping for personal meaning through the power of communal bonds.
“The Mole Agent” does that, too, but its purpose sneaks into the story. It takes the form of a spy movie that utilizes the genre in a whole new way. As ever, the “documentary” label is a terrible misnomer. Documentary isn’t a genre; it’s an expansive category of production. Like “Nomadland” (and, for that matter, “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm”), “The Mole Agent” demonstrates the sheer creative potential when the boundaries of narrative and documentary fall away. Alberdi uses the framework of the real world to construct an absorbing, poignant narrative that works on its own terms. Released at a time of global introspection, when countless people have dealt with sudden isolation and contemplated their mortality, “The Mole Agent” forms for an ideal companion piece to “Nomadland”: Both movies highlight systems that marginalize or oppress people of a certain age, as they drift through a society indifferent to their struggles. But thanks to these brilliant movies, these characters are anything but forgotten souls.