The third of Roberto Minervini’s Texas Trilogy, Stop the Pounding Heart, is a subtle, fragmented piece about rural Christian America
The third instalment of Roberto Minervini’s Texas Trilogy, Stop the Pounding Heart, is a detached Bressonian look at a rural Christian community. Minervini’s hybrid documentary-fictions, which he calls “observations”, are shot using natural light and non-actors whom he follows as they go about their daily chores. The film’s integrity and formal style echo the purity of the lives he films, lending his work a timeless quality. Cinemagoers who require a strong narrative and characters who develop over time might find Minervini’s meditative, languid films hard going. But for those with patience, there are rewards.
The film’s focus is Sara Carlson, a devout fourteen-year-old Christian struggling with her budding womanhood and its potential interference with her relationship to God. Sara and her ten siblings spend their days tending and milking the family’s goats, making cheese, and praying. The quotidian rituals are hypnotic and some of the best scenes in the film. By getting up close to a family who avoid outside contamination by home-schooling their children and who live literally according to the Scriptures, Minervini shows us a world we rarely come into contact with. And to his credit he portrays this family with deep respect. It would be easy to fall into the trap of poking fun at the Carlsons for being just another bunch of crazy, rightwing, weirdo Americans. In resisting this temptation Minervini highlights the beauty, joy and solemnity inherent in the Carlson’s contemplative life.
While Sara and her mother are out selling their goat’s cheese to a family of local rodeo riders, the teenager comes into contact with a strapping young bull-rider called Colby. It is not made clear whether Sara and Colby have met before but a spark appears to be ignited. Because the physical vocabulary among Minervini’s subjects is so limited, the smallest gesture, a shy look or a wander together, speaks volumes. Therefore when Sara and Colby occupy the same shot, both of them looking at Colby’s bulls in near-silence, it comes across as intimate and meaningful even though very little dialogue is exchanged. This kind of subtlety is divisive. Some will find its minimalism elegant and others will be frustrated.
The highlight of the film comes towards the end in a gentle and moving scene between Sara and her mother LeeAnne. Sara, in a moment of weakness, is questioning her faith and she begs her mother for guidance and prayer. LeeAnne takes her daughter in her arms and asks God to cherish every one of her daughter’s footsteps and to “stop the pounding heart”. At that moment the film is pulled into focus. We become aware not only of Sara’s struggles with her faith, but with the idea of doubt as an existential component of life. There is a deep humanity in the filmmaking and in the mother’s loving response to her daughter’s pain. Rather than interpreting the faith that underpins this family as something solid, unshakeable and zealous, we see it as a constant dialogue – something alive and open to questioning. I wished Minervini could have given us more moments like this.
Minervini directed his cast of locals, farmers and bull riders to simply be themselves. This adds an ethnographic layer to Stop the Pounding Heart as we watch cowboys praying before they straddle their bucking steers, girls dressing up for tea parties in anachronistic pre-Raphaelite outfits, pregnant women firing shotguns, and even a live home birth. These images are elemental, startling and unforgettable. However, instead of using these fragments — which are perfect in and of themselves — towards building a narrative, Minervini threads them together in an unconnected manner so that they never quite add up to more than the sum of their individual parts. The rigorous constraints with which Minervini approaches his subjects, while worthy and admirable, are hurdles to the storytelling and the characters. Murky sound recording makes conversations hard to hear, and characters are kept at arm’s length making them often difficult to connect with.
Despite these reservations, Stop the Pounding Heart is worth seeing for its formal invention and single-minded vision. It is a joy watching a filmmaker work with such a pure and original methodology. However, with a bit more sculpting of his material in order to build towards some sense of drama, Stop the Pounding Heart would be a perfect gem of a film. As it stands, drained of dramatic tension, these cool but stunning shots don’t quite add up to the great film it comes close to being.