In the heartland, on the bayou, in the swamp, in the limelight
One of the best films of 2018, Fred Wiseman’s “Monrovia, Indiana” may seem a little rosier than many of the documentaries he has made in his five-decade career. A meticulously observed, precisely edited study of a small farming community, with its charms, troubles, characters, and institutions, the film does not delve directly into politics and never touches on the election of President Trump, for whom most Monrovia’s citizens probably voted. But that reality lies uneasily below the surface of images of gleaming acres of corn, listless high school classrooms, and testy town meetings. In the end, Monrovia proves to be a microcosm of much that is awry in America today.
“Monrovia, Indiana” screens on Jan 13 at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre.
Draining the swamp I
For some they are cute pets, for others a source of income, but for most they are an invasive species threatening the ecosystem of southern Louisiana and spreading to other parts of the South. The nutria, rodents the size of a small dog, with dagger-like orange teeth, were introduced into the bayou region from South America during the Depression by an entrepreneur who wanted to breed them for their pelts. The nutria industry boomed, but when anti-fur activists in the 1980s stifled the market, the creatures were left on their own. They proliferated, devoured the plants that protected the land from erosion, and became an ecological nightmare. Quinn Costello and Chris Metzler’s amusing but alarming documentary, “Rodents of Unusual Size” (2017), is a tale of unintended consequences and unexpected resourcefulness.
“Rodents of Unusual Size” can be seen on PBS Independent Lens on Jan. 14 at 10 p.m. Online streaming begins Jan. 15.
Go to www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/rodents-of-unusual-size.
Draining the swamp II
There once was a time when if politicians said they were going to drain the swamp, they meant it.
As Randall MacLowry’s dry but richly informative and all-too topical documentary “The Swamp” explains, for years Florida’s vast Everglades was regarded as a wasteland, hundreds of square miles of muck inhabited by alligators, bugs, and the resolute, indigenous Seminole tribe, who were driven there by the US Army after being uprooted from their land. In 1881, however, the entrepreneur Hamilton Disston saw it as an opportunity — if it could be drained, it would yield rich farmland and valuable real estate. The endeavor failed — and probably killed him.
But others — capitalists, hucksters, and politicians — took up the challenge. Dredging, draining, and building levies and canals, they reclaimed much of the swamp for development, only to see nature, in the form of rain, drought, and hurricanes, turn their efforts into calamities. Meanwhile, some saw the Everglades as the natural wonder it was and sought to preserve it, and, amid the scramble for profits, managed to create one of America’s greatest national parks.
“The Swamp” can be seen on PBS’s “American Experience” on Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. “The Swamp” will also be available on DVD from PBS Distribution and can be purchased at ShopPBS.org. Online viewing begins on Jan. 16 at PBS.org.
Go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/swamp.
Portrait of the actress
The Austrian-born actress Romy Schneider, the subject of Emily Atef’s docudrama “3 Days in Quiberon” (2018), maintained a career of outstanding artistic achievement despite personal tragedies, professional frustrations, and the persistent harassment of a sensationalistic media. She died in 1982, at 43.
Atef focuses her film on an interview Schneider unwisely permitted a year before her death while she was convalescing — or as the film claims, undergoing rehab for alcoholism — at the resort town of the title on the coast of Brittany. Despite her previous bad experiences with the press, Schneider, wrenchingly portrayed by Marie Bäumer, allows an in-depth interview with a callow reporter from the German magazine Stern. He unscrupulously plies her with booze (for a rehab facility, this one is pretty lax) and manipulates her with prying, sometimes abusive questioning. She accommodates him by spilling out a tale filled with more mishaps and tragedies than found in many of her movies, which include Orson Welles’s “The Trial” (1962) and Claude Sautet’s “A Simple Story” (1978).
We learn that her father was an actor who starred in comedies for Joseph Goebbels under the Third Reich and her mother was an actress enamored of Hitler. With this show-biz background, she broke into the German film scene as a teenager in a series of frothy films about Sissi, the future Habsburg Empress Elisabeth. German-speaking audiences identified her with that role and resented it when she broke out of the typecasting to play darker, adult characters.
They also feasted on the tabloid coverage of her private life — her heartbreaking affair with the actor Alain Delon, the suicide of her ex-husband Harry Meyen, a miscarriage, her drinking, and financial problems brought on by poor judgment and corrupt advisers. In short, a life not unlike that of many other women destroyed by the entertainment industry.
Shot in black and white, evoking the photos taken by Schneider’s friend and former lover Robert Lebeck during the interview (as well as Edmond Richard’s stark cinematography in “The Trial”), the film ends on a bittersweet note. Not so Schneider’s life. Her 14-year-old son died in a freak accident shortly after the interview, and the circumstances of her own death, suspected to be suicide, remain a mystery.
“3 Days in Quiberon” screens on Jan. 13 at 11 a.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. It is being presented by the Goethe Institute Boston.
Go to www.coolidge.org/films/3-days-quiberon.