The third and final chapter of a trilogy by US-based Italian director Roberto Minervini entirely dedicated to the study of rural Texas, Stop the Pounding Heart tenuously walks the line between documentary and fiction.
It follows the day-to-day life of 17-year-old Sara Carlson ("star" of Minervini's The Passage) and her goat-farming family as she goes through a crisis of faith and identity in the midst of an extremely religious - fundamentalist, even - family for which the Bible sets all rules for life, and forms a subtle bond with bull-riding Colby Trichell (also seen in Minervini's other film Low Tide). This strange and intimate portrait, shot on the Carlson home with the actual family, defies classification and snaps a privileged, rare depiction of these people's way of life, as they tend to the livestock, shoot guns and ride bulls.
Whether Sara and her family are playing a version of themselves or acting exactly as they would if there wasn't a camera around, we'll never know for sure. But Minervini's ability to direct them - or not direct them - is an impressive achievement in itself, resulting in a highly realistic, documentary-like look at their lives where nothing particularly exciting or new seems to happen, except the subtle switch in Sara's mind which makes her start to question her faith and her role in a world that has made her believe that she's just supposed to get married, have babies and serve the male gender until she dies.
Needless to say, doctrine abounds in the Carlson household; the children are homeschooled because school brings "bad influences" and everyone follows a strict routine made of chores, Bible study but also basic play-time and fun. Minervini, however, never judges the Carlsons for a second, merely observing them like a good documentarian, like he's not even there. It often feels like an intrusion of sorts, to the point where he films an actual birth taking place.
You'd expect all this fundamentalism to come across as purely scary and brainwash-y - and it does at times, since you can't really help but feel unnerved by the thought of young girls being raised to believe their role in life is to serve men. But Minervini doesn't actively try to portray their religion as oppressive, nor does he manipulate us into looking at them as merely gun-fanatic Jesus freaks.
If that does happen, it's the religion itself's doing. The rest of the time we're looking at a family who clearly cares deeply for each other and the film is filled with moments of exquisite, understated beauty, especially in Sara's interactions with her siblings, the animals and the Carlsons' very unique connection with nature.
It's strange because Stop the Pounding Heart may feel very much like a documentary but it looks nothing like it. Even though Minervini knows how to track characters closely and where to discretely put his camera, always handheld, his greatest strength is composition. His use of natural light, mostly centered on Sara's worldly beauty, gives the film a magic quality that pulls away from the realism and makes it grander, while simultaneously small and modest.
You can see a lot of Terrence Malick here, but especially Mexican virtuoso Carlos Reygadas - the use of non-actors, the idyllic, rural setting, the Man/Nature dynamic. And much like Reygadas' (and Malick's) work, it's the kind of film that asks patience and appreciation of subtlety from its audience, with a lot to say between the lines for those willing to read and be rewarded for it.