The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Frederick Wiseman is a documentary giant. His new film may just change the way you look at small-town America.

A scene from the documentary “Monrovia, Indiana,” featuring the town’s Main Street. (Zipporah Films)
(3.5 stars)

For more than half a century, documentary-maker Frederick Wiseman has observed American life from a discreet distance, creating visual and aural essays that fall into a felicitous middle ground between reportage and sheer poetry. His films have had impact: Wiseman’s debut, “Titicut Follies,” which exposed inhuman conditions at a Massachusetts state mental-health facility, spurred an outcry for immediate reform. But Wiseman’s films are wondrously free of polemic or explicit agendas, which makes them that much more stealthily effective.

“Monrovia, Indiana” stands as an exceptionally straightforward, four-square example of Wiseman’s strategy. Filmed in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, the film takes viewers to the kind of rural Midwestern town that tipped that race: small (pop. 1,443), largely white, deeply religious and unsure what the future holds in an economic context of technological and cultural change.

Rest assured, “Monrovia, Indiana,” never invokes partisan politics. As usual, Wiseman simply trains his camera on what he deems important, creating a closely observed portrait of a community by way of still images and scenes captured on a static, dispassionate camera. The film’s opening scene, of rolling cropland, handsome farmhouses, gentle-eyed cows and empty roads, could easily be accompanied by a soaring score by Aaron Copland. Wiseman doesn’t go in for such dramatics: His only soundtrack is the sound of rustling leaves, chirping birds and occasional conversations among the citizens he keeps at a respectful arm’s length.

The result is a classic on a par with “Winesburg, Ohio” and “Our Town,” a narrow slice of contemporary American life that manages to be both admiring, yet capable of polite skepticism. Wiseman never takes us into those stately clapboard homes behind neatly trimmed lawns. Instead, he captures life in public, as people go to school, get their hair cut, shop at the supermarket, have a cup of coffee at the corner cafe, wrestle with development issues at a town council meeting and honor a longtime member of the Monrovia Masonic Lodge with a ceremony recognizing 50 years of service. Because Wiseman declines to interview his subjects, a few questions go unanswered, because they’re unasked. There’s an unmistakable subtext to a contentious debate involving a subdivision called Homestead, for example, that’s never fleshed out or explored.

On the other hand, the lack of people speaking directly to the camera means that the audience will be spared the kind of rambling, self-justifying speeches that pass for too much national reporting in a world gone MAGA. Instead, we’re simply afforded the privilege of watching people whose self-reliance and sense of mutual obligation can also be seen through a lens of insularity; whose spiritual practices are clearly deeply restorative but also self-righteously paternalistic; and whose pride in their roots as the breadbasket of the country is at odds with a Big Agricultural operation that is both a lifeline and a force for creeping alienation.

“Monrovia, Indiana” may not be about politics, but it’s a deeply political film. Rather than probe or interrogate, it presents a carefully crafted image of civic life that, in some ways, reflects society at large and, in other ways, exemplifies what’s being left behind as that society inevitably changes. Like all of Wiseman’s films, “Monrovia, Indiana” possesses almost meditative power. Deliberately paced, it accrues emotion and meaning in direct proportion to viewers’ willingness to let it flow through them and, perhaps, leave them permanently changed.

Unrated. At the AFI Silver. Contains some bloody images at a veterinarian’s office. 143 minutes.