Film Review: ‘Monrovia, Indiana’

Pleasurably low-key if not among his most invaluable recent works, Frederick Wiseman's latest American opus takes a long, slow look at a rural red-state town.

'Monrovia, Indiana' Review: Wiseman's Smalltown American
Courtesy of Zipporah Films

A low-lying, unremarkable assemblage of cornfields, churches and boxy mom-and-pop businesses, the eponymous town in Frederick Wiseman’s “Monrovia, Indiana” is the kind of community we’ve read a lot about in liberal-minded newspapers since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential race: extended, folksy profiles at condescending pains to sympathize with America’s supposedly forgotten white middle, and to reason why that upstanding contingent elected a far-right bully into the White House. Given that Morgan County, of which Monrovia is an unassumingly functional cog, voted 76% in favor of Trump, you might expect a documentary portrait of it to take much the same approach — though that’d be reckoning without the intelligent, unsentimental gaze of Wiseman, whose 42nd non-fiction feature finds him in particularly unexcitable form.

Aside from a brief glance at a Republican Party country fair stall, or passing, strident slogans from the pro-gun lobby — “Welcome to Indiana, home to a million concealed carry permits; enjoy your stay” — politics lurk politely beneath the lawnmower-clipped surface of Wiseman’s film. As ever, he’s more concerned with impassively documenting the daily social and professional practices that keep the town ticking.

The filmmaker does so with his usual patient, eloquent eye, locating incidental insight, humor and occasional beauty in such workaday subjects as a hair salon, a takeaway pizza parlor or a farm machinery auction, as well as more consequential ceremonies of life, love and death. “Monrovia, Indiana” is not, however, up to the standard of more transcendent Wiseman societal studies like “In Jackson Heights” or “Belfast, Maine”; its methodical gathering of material never quite brings us to a more stirring understanding of the lives under its lens. Without the major urban institutional focus of his recent works “Ex Libris,” “National Gallery” and “At Berkeley,” the commercial outlook for Wiseman’s latest is a little narrower, though it’ll travel all the expected distribution avenues — producing partner PBS among them.

An establishing montage of quick, static everyday tableaux from Monrovia (population 1,063, and it seems residents don’t want it rising any higher) plays as if shuffling through a pack of America’s dullest tourist postcards: cow-speckled fields, a mud-colored Protestant church, a blocky red-brick tavern, and rustling corn crops as level as a military flattop, all neatly framed by road and pale blue, one-weather sky. From there, we move into more sustained glimpses of people modestly going about their business, be it a farmer herding shrieking pens of pigs into trucks or a barber giving identical high-and-tight scalpings to stone-faced clients across a 70-year age spectrum.

It’s some time before a word is spoken on screen; when it is, it tellingly comes from a Bible counselor, warning unseen onlookers that God persistently puts right what humanity messes up. Church duly serves as the locus of the film and town alike, housing Wiseman’s lengthiest, most intimate set pieces. We sit in on a wedding ceremony rife with earnest, po-faced kitsch, culminating in the happy couple’s assembly of a “Unity Cross” representing the alignment of retrograde gender roles. More movingly, we’re guests at the funeral of a well-loved septuagenarian wife and mother, staying through the minister’s entire eulogy as it runs the gamut from grave reverence to tender uplift.

In Monrovia, there are few occasions bigger than such gatherings; Wiseman grants them due attention. At a short remove from church and death alike, meanwhile, we also observe the somewhat dejected spectacle of a local Freemasons’ congregation, in honor of one member’s 50th year in the group. There’s witty bathos in the contrast between the windy pomp and ceremony of their ritual and the cramped, dingily carpeted surrounds of the local lodge — any sense of masonic mystique has long since bypassed Monrovia. More immediately striking, however, is that all the men involved are hovering around retirement age, surely the last of their order. The town, it seems, is shedding irrelevant traditions faster than it can cultivate fresh ones: It’s hard not to note the meager presence of youth and cultural diversity in Wiseman’s exacting overview.

Running more mundanely through the film are a series of local council meetings, in which doggedly inconclusive debates run back and forth over such issues as the allocation of fire hydrants in the town, or the merits of developing new business versus new housing: the latter a slightly more heated exchange that tacitly reveals the townspeople’s conservative, growth-opposed political impulses. This kind of small-scale community government action is a recurring area of interest for the filmmaker, though the meetings don’t amass the microcosmic, slow-burn fascination of equivalent glimpses in “In Jackson Heights”; sometimes, a protracted discussion over where to place library benches is simply as pedantic as it sounds. That may be the wryest, most cunning upshot of “Monrovia, Indiana’s” respectfully observed album of Americana: If there’s a bigger picture to be drawn here, the town isn’t in a hurry to see it.

Film Review: ‘Monrovia, Indiana’

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 3, 2018. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — TIFF Docs.) Running time: <strong>143 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A Zipporah Films release of a Civic Film, LLC production in association with PBS. (International sales: Doc & Film International, Paris.) Producer: Frederick Wiseman.
  • Crew: Director, editor: Frederick Wiseman. Camera (color): John Davey.
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