Stop the Pounding Heart is not a documentary. It’s also not not a documentary. It is, as it turns out, something entirely different.
Roberto Minervini went to Texas to make this film, the third in a trilogy set in the Lone Star State. His focus is on a devout Christian family and their daughter, Sara. At 14 she is the eldest of twelve children, all of whom are home-schooled by their parents. As Minervini presents it, their life consists mostly of the Bible and goat farming. There is plenty of the pastoral beauty we have come to expect from low-key, heartfelt portraits of rural America but there is also quite a bit going on under the surface.
Sara is a real person playing a somewhat fictionalized version of herself. The same goes for her family. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much of a concrete script. The only narrative that appears to be constructed for the film is the hint of a possible romance, between Sara and a teenage boy from a neighboring family. Their flirtations are muffled and hesitant but clearly have an impact on this young woman’s sense of self. She begins to question her faith, posing tentative rejections of the strict gender roles her parents have found in Christianity. This is the central arc of the film and the one in which Minervini’s hand is most profoundly felt. The actual discussions of gender and faith seem natural and even probable but the dramatic tension that creates them is constructed.
Yet the world around this very subtle story of doubt and conviction is not the least bit staged. Minervini follows the family to a local farmer’s market where they sell their goat cheese to real customers. The youngest children aren’t acting, certainly, and it is never clear how many of the characters have been explicitly directed to perform. A local pregnant woman, who we see earlier in the film holding a rifle, gives birth before the camera in a particularly memorable sequence. This is more than just a fiction feature with some documentary footage interspersed, like a neorealist classic or another NDNF selection, Mouton (see our review). The hybridity here is not mathematical, not the simple addition of nonfiction to a fictional structure for thematic effect. There is something qualitatively different about Stop the Pounding Heart.
After all, the image of a non-actor playing herself can never be truly fictional. Never mind the fact that no image is entirely fictional, the style of Stop the Pounding Heart deals with this tension in a much more evident way. As a European filmmaker making films for what we can assume is a primarily festival audience, Minervini presents the truest possible portrait of a community that is at least partially alien to him.
A more traditional documentary might be drawn into the potentially controversial aspects of this world. Sara and her sisters are raised to believe that Eve was made from Adam and that women are meant to be subservient helpers. This is a town with guns everywhere. European audiences may very well find this milieu either ethnographically fascinating or inherently troubling. Yet to completely mask these things in an entirely fictional love story might also misrepresent these people. Minervini’s approach is never fictional because he is interested in the reality of his subjects, even when they are performing a pre-written story.
By the time Stop the Pounding Heart arrives at its final image, among its most resonant and certainly its most staged, these elements have blended so effectively that the audience can only leave questions of technical veracity behind. In this moment, dressed in white and walking along a simple fence, Sara is thoroughly and gracefully real.
This review was originally published during New Directors/New Films on March 27, 2014.