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CANNES – A modest film made with an authenticity that commands respect, Stop the Pounding Heart adopts fundaments of neorealism and cinema verite to consider issues of faith, family and personal conviction as experienced by a contemporary adolescent girl beginning to question her path. Following The Passage and Low Tide, this third part in Italian director Roberto Minervini’s Texas trilogy will be too minimalist an enterprise to get beyond the festival margins, but it yields minor-key rewards for patient audiences.
A hybrid of documentary and unscripted narrative depicting real people in an insular rural community, the film’s cast is made up primarily of members of two large families. The chief focus is the Carlsons, goat farmers who run an artisanal dairy business, selling milk, cheese and yoghurt at local farmers’ markets.
The parents, Leeanne and Tim, raise their twelve children according to a strict interpretation of the Bible, homeschooling them to limit negative influences. It’s an austere life of prayer, work and religious studies at mealtime, with no sign in the house of such standard communication tools as television, computers or telephones.
At 14, Sara is one of the older siblings, helping to educate and care for her young brothers and sisters while navigating her own way into adulthood. When she meets Colby Trichell, a young amateur bull rider from a more rough-edged Christian family, a mutual interest develops that’s so guarded it could barely be defined as attraction.
Coaxing unaffected work out of non-actors essentially playing themselves, Minervini quietly explores Sara’s internal struggle. Her future has been mapped out, first in the service of her father and eventually as helpmate to a husband. But dating is discouraged, considered to be a frivolous pursuit of fun rather than a stepping-stone to true commitment. During prayer discussions her mother counsels Sara and her sisters about the happiness to be found in submission.
The dramatic integrity of Minervini’s approach is admirable, though the director’s reluctance to intrude also means that some of what’s onscreen remains opaque. One example is the unexplained scenes in which the girls wear period dresses, presumably to reinforce their connection to traditional notions of womanhood.
While the director keeps his own ideological views out of the picture, there’s arguably an implicit judgment in the way the gun culture of places like rural Texas is depicted, such as a shot of a heavily pregnant Trichell family member getting in some target practice. Watching the same woman later giving birth assisted by a midwife perhaps inadvertently fuels Sara’s anxieties about her expected role.
The film’s main conflict takes a long time to surface, and then does so only in the most subdued terms. But while Stop the Pounding Heart will be too unhurried and detached in its observations for some, it remains engrossing. Minervini is particularly successful at suggesting the parallels between Colby and Sara. A skinny, sweet-natured cowboy who’s all sinew but no muscle, he needs focus and determination to master his rodeo skills and avoid injury. A born nurturer with a special feeling for animals, she holds sacred beliefs yet at the same time is needled by doubts and fears that she’s unable to articulate, which her mother assures her are an inevitable part of the battle for inner peace.
Shot using a handheld camera and only available light sources, the no-budget production has a slightly raw sound quality, sacrificing some of the mumbled dialogue. But that just seems part of the persuasive purity of Minervini’s vision. And while it isn’t quite a performance in the standard sense, it’s difficult to imagine the film working to the extent it does without a figure of such emotional transparency and innate spirituality as Sara Carlson at its center.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Cast: Sara Carlson, Colby Trichell, Leeanne Carlson, Tim Carlson
Production companies: Pulpa, OndaRossa Film, Poliana Productions
Director-screenwriter: Roberto Minervini
Producers: Denise Lee, Luigina Smerilli, Joao Leite
Director of photography: Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos
Editor: Marie-Helene Dozo
Sales: Doc & Film International, Paris
No rating, 101 minutes.
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