For more than 50 years, Frederick Wiseman has been telling one story: the story of America. At any time, his subject may be a boxing gym or an inner-city high school or a prison for the criminally insane, but added up, they become a vibrant mosaic of the way we live. Still going strong at 88, Wiseman now ventures into the heart of Trump country with his all-seeing camera to chronicle the daily rites and rituals of a dying small town that has a sense of community that remains very much alive.
Wiseman’s films are encyclopedic and rarely short. His latest, Monrovia, Indiana, which clocks in at a leisurely 143 minutes, is one of his shorter ones. But its unhurried pace matches the subject matter. After all, these are folks who aren’t in a rush to get anywhere. Opening with a painterly montage of cud-chewing cattle, towering grain silos, and a sleepy, shop-pocked main drag, the documentary zeroes in on the town’s population (of just over 1,000). We see these people — largely aging, and overwhelmingly white — talking with one another at Bible groups and barbershops. Their conversations are about nothing, and everything.
Monrovia, Indiana may not be one of the director’s most urgent films, but it packs an accumulative wallop in its attempt to sympathize with upstanding folks receiving the close-up they deserve. Few filmmakers can turn a mundane town council meeting about a library bench into a meditation on patriotism and civic responsibility the way Wiseman can. Let’s hope his camera continues to roll for years to come. B+