'Monrovia, Indiana': Film Review | Venice 2018

Wiseman in a minor key.

Documaker Frederick Wiseman turns his camera on a small Midwestern farming community and explores its values.

Small-town America has been portrayed so often and so well in fiction films that it’s hard to imagine what a straight documentary could add, even one directed by a filmmaker of Frederick Wiseman’s stature. He says he made Monrovia, Indiana because he thought it would be a good addition to his series on contemporary American life. The film has its resonant moments, notably a wedding and a funeral. But it is by no means the jewel in the crown of a series that most recently has included electrifying docs like At Berkeley, In Jackson Heights and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. It may attract the attention of the director’s fans but is unlikely to go beyond.

The film diplomatically tiptoes around its subject; not dumping on the unsophisticated little town, but damning it with neutrality. Some 1,400 residents inhabit Monrovia, a conservative rural farming community in Indiana. From the looks of the flat cornfields and soybean fields stretching out to the horizon and the ability of farmers to fork out $110,000 for a shiny new combine at auction, it is thriving. In the opening scenes, the filmmaker hits all the signature locations — a Protestant church, the public high school, pens bursting with numbered hogs and cattle — establishing the town's dull everyday world.

A lengthy scene shot at a town council meeting recalls Wiseman’s fascination with public community organizations, though to be honest their back-and-forth about a fire hydrant is not the most captivating moment in the film. At another meeting, a county representative makes a plea for a business-friendly attitude, whatever that is, in the interest of tax revenue and population growth. But no one seems keen to have more people around.

In an equally lengthy visit to the local masonic lodge, an 80-year-old man is honored for completing 50 years of membership in an ornate ceremony. The Lions Club is of little more interest; the board of directors is debating whether to install a bench in front of the library and how much to pay for it. Although Wiseman rigorously refrains from making any explicit judgment, few viewers will see these get-togethers as anything other than boring and peripheral.

Editing bits and pieces of Americana together, the Boston-born Wiseman paints his portrait of Monrovia but remains decidedly outside it. In the place of the passionate cultural debates in At Berkeley and Ex Libris, we find a surprising neutrality toward a place whose highest form of culture is Bible studies, and which seems frozen in time before the digital revolution.  

Monrovia High School is famous for its stellar basketball players. There is a yard sale and a pack of Hells Angels tooling around town on their Harleys. A barber shop and a beauty parlor are noted, along with a car repair and a tattoo shop on Main Street. The liquor store is busy and a gun shop is frequented by deer hunters. A supermarket sells pre-health food, a takeout pizza parlor is called the Dawg House and in a gym bodies of all shapes and sizes do light exercise. The most dramatic scene is that of a sedated boxer getting his tail docked at the vet’s.

Old-timers shoot the breeze and talk about their operations. A trio plays country music at Monrovia’s annual fair, where cars are sold secondhand. None of these typical details of rural life takes the viewer more deeply into the local mind-set than a Coen brothers’ film. One waits in vain for some kind of political reference, but other than a glimpse of a Republican booth at the fair, nothing turns up.

Everything feels slightly grotesque, especially a church wedding in which the minister invites the bride and groom to affirm their Christian faith by assembling a “Unity Cross,” a sort of yin-yang sculpture. The film ends on a long and moving funeral sequence that takes place first in the church and then at the cemetery, where the minister delivers a genuinely comforting eulogy for a woman who died at 74. When the mourners join in singing "Amazing Grace," the film comes close to a John Ford moment in spite of itself.

Production companies: Civic Films, Zipporah Films
Producers: Karen Konicek, Frederick Wiseman
Director, screenwriter, editor: Frederick Wiseman
Director of photography: John Davey
World sales: Doc and Film International, Zipporah FilmsVenue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition)
143 minutes