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Nearly a nonagenarian yet sharper than ever, the indefatigable Frederick Wiseman (Ex Libris, At Berkeley) heads to the Midwest and deep into Republican heartland for his latest film, an elegiac portrait of small-town Americana in standstill. As this elder statesman of documentary cinema has so gracefully maintained over 40+ features, there are no snap judgments – nor a single mention of Trump – in his firm and reverential view of daily life in Monrovia, pop. 1,083. The largely white, conservative, Christian townsfolk are captured in their roles as farmers, retailers, salesmen and church leaders, and in between the irony and gentle humour of their routines, there’s a subtle poetry in the modest work of professionals that lingers before the camera.
Monrovia’s future, like so many of the institutions documented by Wiseman, circles around meetings and agenda-setting, with earnest public bench politics sharing the screen with vital town infrastructure proposals, the latter tellingly opposed by a council majority allergic to change. At the heart of the matter is an aging, inward-looking population stuck in slow-motion and, on the surface at least, a sad microcosm of America’s woes. But Wiseman’s film, too nuanced to serve a single message, is also a beautifully melancholic look at the traditions and values that shape this particular place and its people. Witnessing ceremonies familiar yet remarkable in their sincerity – a wedding, a funeral, a Masonic commemoration, a school music recital – we are eloquently reminded of the rituals and gatherings that are the lifeblood of communities anywhere in the world. — Tim Wong