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Review: Documentary legend Frederick Wiseman and his secret weapon in 'Monrovia, Indiana'

Review: Documentary legend Frederick Wiseman and his secret weapon in 'Monrovia, Indiana'
The main street from the documentary "Monrovia, Indiana." (Zipporah Films)

“Monrovia, Indiana” does not sound like a scintillating topic for a documentary. But in the hands of Frederick Wiseman, you never get what you expect.

America’s premier documentarian, the 88-year-old Wiseman has made more than 40 films about various aspects of this country’s life and times over a career that’s lasted more than half a century.

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Wiseman’s done it, among other reasons, by giving his formidable curiosity free rein. Who are these people, he in effect asks each time out, what is it like for them on the ground? If he never knows what he’s going to discover, neither do we.

The director has not before shot a film in the rural Midwest, and though the 2016 election and the current administration are never mentioned or even referred to, it’s possible that the contest’s revelation of the yawning gap between rural and urban fueled this inquisitive exploration of what small town America looks like.

A modest farming community of some 1,400 souls not too far from Indianapolis, Monrovia came to Wiseman’s attention almost by chance, and he and longtime cinematographer John Davey ended up filming there for nine weeks, sampling a great deal of what the town has on offer.

The result is surprisingly companionable and enjoyable, an unhurried look at a location that is in no kind of rush, a place that is concerned most of all with preserving the way it’s always been.

Davey has been Wiseman’s secret weapon for decades, and his work is especially strong here. Noteworthy is the way Davey provides gorgeous images of Monrovia’s rural setting, some of the most striking of Wiseman’s entire career.

“Monrovia, Indiana” opens with a montage of the Midwest of myth: barns, silos, cozy farmhouses and beautiful blue skies. There are cows, lots of cows, and even a pig farm where a lone worker walks among the porkers spraying a red mark on those headed for the end of days.

Tiny though it is, Monrovia has a sense of its own history — class photos in the local high school date back to 1884 — and a teacher in one class gives an impassioned chronology (to somewhat bored students) of the town’s close connection with basketball history.

UCLA’s legendary John Wooden, as it turns out, spent some of his childhood years here, and the great coach Branch McCracken (if you’ve never heard of him, don’t let on around here) was a proud native son.

The town’s main street and environs look exactly the way you’d expect, and we spend time with the locals in a variety of establishments, including Hot Rod’s Barber Shop, Stinger’s Tattoos and Dawg House Pizza (the high school mascot is the bulldog).

In each of these establishments and more (including a disconcerting dog tail bobbing at the local vet’s), the emphasis is on busy hands skillfully at work. If idle hands are the devil’s playthings, there’s not much leeway for the forces of darkness here.

One thing folks in Monrovia spend time on is thinking about fellow residents. Over at the Monrovia Lions Club, members are weighing options about the best place in town to place a commemorative bench.

Meanwhile, members of Masonic Lodge Chapter 654 are giving an Award of Gold to one of their own for 50 years of service to the organization. “He’s a good friend to many and a stranger to few,” one speaker says, a turn of phrase not usually heard in major metropolitan areas.

Also visited, and more than once, are local churches, for belief in God and going home to heaven are central here. The preacher at a memorial service for a local woman that ends the film talks passionately about it being “a day of celebration. She has never been more at home in her life than she is today.”

For those concerned with earthly things, one of the most fascinating aspects of “Monrovia” is its visits to City Council meetings, where, as in Los Angeles, growth is on the agenda.

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But growth there is different than growth here, and a plan to add 150-plus houses, which might mean 300 to 500 additional people, is a big deal in a town of 1,400.

No one wants the town to die, as pro-growth speakers fear might happen. But after spending two hours and 23 minutes (brief for a Wiseman film) embedded in “Monrovia, Indiana,” it is not difficult to understand why those who live there just don’t want the place to change.

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“Monrovia, Indiana”

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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