Frederick Wiseman has spent a lifetime piecing together sounds and images captured from the daily flow. These patchwork projections of our common life play across the screen without voiceovers, written texts or talking heads–with no explanation at all, except for the baldest statement of subject matter. High School, Hospital, Public Housing: Weigh these brief titles against the ensuing events–three or four hours’ worth of them, usually–and you understand that Wiseman’s concerns are both social and philosophical. How much experience must we accumulate to gain a little knowledge? How much, or how little, does our knowledge inform the evidence of our senses?

In his latest documentary, Domestic Violence, Wiseman reveals that this philosophy can be a matter of life and death.

Imagine a cramped house somewhere in Tampa, Florida, late at night. In rooms where the lights are turned low or turned off, the camera’s lamp casts a glare over bare walls, sparse and rumpled furniture, and the thin, shirtless torso of a man. He has the hair and mustache of George Armstrong Custer and a low-voiced drawl to match, deployed with pride in his vocabulary and a drunkard’s pretense of self-possession. He is the one who called the police, and who greets them with a long-neck beer in his hand. He says he wants no trouble to arise from his dispute with the woman in the bedroom.

On the face of it, the man’s complaint might seem plausible: He wants the woman to leave his property, and she won’t. But since, by his own admission, she has lived there for nine months–long enough to establish legal residence–the two cops must take General Custer into the next room, to consult with the other party about her wishes. They find her holding on to the bed as if it were a lifeboat, from which she might be tossed at any moment. She says she has a bad bladder infection; she says she’s exhausted; she says she’ll be willing to leave in the morning, but for now she has to sleep. Most of these pleas emerge through tears, the hands raised in exasperation, the face averted. You see little more of the woman than a blond ponytail and a baggy T-shirt, even when the key words pop out: The man recently shot at her with a rifle.

At this assertion, the male cop glances toward the female, who nods. Yes, Custer had been arrested and released not long ago. "I’m really scared of him," the woman says, weeping. So why did she come back to his house? "I have nowhere else to go," she wails, as if she’s both desperate and fed up with the question. Will she now let the cops take her someplace safe? "I’ll sleep on the couch," she insists, and on her way through the doorway she brushes past Custer. He has just promised the cops that if she stays, it won’t be a peaceful night.

This scene is the conclusion of Domestic Violence. I give a lengthy account of it not to convey its impact–how could I even approach the horror?–but to testify that the surface details mean much more than they would have, had you witnessed them earlier in the film. On a philosophical level, the scene’s placement at the end of the film amounts to an empirical proof: What you’ve learned changes your understanding of what you see and hear. On the human level, what you see and hear amounts to utter catastrophe. Because this woman has not learned certain lessons that other women in the film have absorbed, she understands her situation in a way that’s likely to get her killed.

Wiseman brings us to this terrible knowledge by giving Domestic Violence a double structure. On one level, the film plays as a linear progression, taking place over the course of weeks or months. We follow a number of women and their children as they move out of abusive situations and into a shelter, where they begin to take control of their lives. On another level, the film plays as a cycle, which seems (through clever editing) to take place over the course of one day. We start by visiting scenes of abuse in the hours after dawn; we end at night, with one more devastating episode of violence.

These two kinds of time do more than overlap in Domestic Violence; they yield an intolerable tension. When night falls and we find ourselves back in hell, sliding down one more turn of the spiral, we don’t despair–we revolt, because we’ve seen that there’s a way out of the cycle.

This double movement begins with images of blue skies and white clouds over downtown Tampa. Office towers gleam in the early light; the world looks peaceful and clean. It takes only a few shots of highway traffic, though, to lead to another Tampa: a city of squat bungalows, housing projects with boarded-up windows and dirt yards, strip malls with flashing signs for pawnbrokers and "Full Liquor Topless." "It’s a real bad neighborhood," a helpful citizen comments, as a bloodied woman is wheeled away from her home on a gurney. "Drugs, prostitution…. Myself, I’d be scared to raise kids around here."

You’re privileged to hear these words because Wiseman and his cinematographer, John Davey, rode along with the Tampa police as they responded to complaints of domestic violence. Apart from being astonished at the filmmakers’ skill–how did they catch these scenes without spooking anybody?–you’re also likely to be impressed by the grimness of the settings and the patience of the cops. For the moment, Domestic Violence plays out on a terrain of material need and armed legal force. The trickier ground is still to come.

It’s the ground of the victims’ emotions. Wiseman begins to enter this territory through scenes shot at a crisis center, where counselors take phone calls from women hoping to flee their homes. "Listen, Karen," one of the counselors says in close-up, "no one is going to judge you. You have been wronged. We do have a shelter that you can come to. No, you can’t bring your bird. What kind of a bird do you have? We have a counselor here who knows a lot about birds."

Next come scenes in which women enter a shelter called The Spring. ("Has he ever threatened to kill you or himself?" asks one of the counselors, going down her list of screening questions. The newcomer thinks it over. "Me," she says.) Although a staff member of The Spring later points out, emphatically, that men may also be battered, everyone we see at this point is female: both the new clients of the shelter and the workers who provide their point of entry. Male counselors will pop up later; but for now it’s the trustworthy female staffers who take down the inventory of abuse: verbal, financial, social, physical. They get the newcomers settled into their rooms, rustle up clothes as needed, talk about goals. They are so empathetic, they can turn a check for head lice into an occasion for encouragement.

Now, the initiation done, we get to the film’s heart: group discussions among the adult women and classroom sessions with their children. As the mothers know, these two things are one. The women tell one another about childhoods steeped in fear, shame and deprivation. They recall how they learned to expect battering, and even to accept it. They ask how to save their kids from replicating their lives of violence.

You’ve heard all this before: Abuse begets more abuse. You can mouth the sentence as you would the brief, bland syllables of Wiseman’s title. But here, underlying the words, is experience. You see women with scars on their faces, scabs across the nose, bruises on the arms. You learn about a terror that was so intense, its victim was willing to live with half her face reduced to a pulp rather than leave the man who took a crowbar to her. The language of psychological uplift isn’t stale to these women, who bear in their flesh the marks of low self-esteem. The words they learn at The Spring are a revelation to them, and a potential lifeline to their children.

That’s why the final, nighttime episode of Domestic Violence fills you with such outrage. You now know, in your gut, why the victim doesn’t leave–even with the man threatening her to her face, even with the cops offering a way out. Faced with this awful realization, you might feel it inadequate to say she’s been beaten into cooperating with General Custer. Such a statement comes close to blaming the woman for her suffering; it amounts to mere words.

But here’s what’s even more awful: For lack of those words, she might suffer till she dies.

Domestic Violence has been playing in New York City at Film Forum. You may look for this heartbreaking, indispensable film at other movie houses around the country, or watch for a broadcast on PBS.