Frederick Wiseman completed his first documentary, the controversial ”Titicut Follies,” in 1967, and he has never altered his style since. The stationary camera, the lengthy unedited takes, the unblinking mood of ”nonjudgmental” voyeurism – he’s the Zen purist of cinema verité. So austere is his technique that Domestic Violence, like all his recent work, is getting only a modest theatrical release. Shooting at a shelter for battered women in Tampa Bay, Fla., Wiseman reveals the victims of domestic abuse in all of their pity and terror. Desperate, mostly uneducated, isolated from the middle-class loop of self-help, the women describe intricate and, as they admit, symbiotic patterns of cruelty set off by arguments over everything from sex to paying the bills to stepping on the lawn. Gradually, we see that they’ve endured a kind of brainwashing.
There are moments when you want ”Domestic Violence” to be shorter, less rambling and discursive. Yet Wiseman achieves something singular: When, after close to three hours of group therapy, he shows us a dispute between a woman and her tattoo-trash boyfriend, the sequence may look like an episode of ”Cops,” but we watch it with a nearly novelistic sense of the fear, hostility, and sado-mental games that can tangle a relationship into a knot of unholy hell.