Stop the Pounding Heart
Aug 8 at 7:30 & Aug 9 at 7
$9; students & seniors $7
Brown Auditorium
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1001 Bissonnet St. 
713-639-7300
mfah.org/films 

Critic Daniel Walber may have summed it up best: Stop the Pounding Heart –screening at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – is not a documentary. But it’s also not not a documentary.

An artful and arresting mix of intimate cinéma vérité and unscripted narrative, this uniquely fascinating feature is the final installment in the “Texas Trilogy” directed by Italian-born, Houston-based filmmaker Roberto Minervini. After premiering to great acclaim last year at the Cannes Film Festival, it received the 2014 David di Donatello Award (Italy’s version of the Oscar) for Best Documentary. But even with that accolade to its credit, the film defies labeling.

Much like the previous two works in the trilogy– Low Tide (2012) and The Passage (2011), which also have traveled widely on the international festival circuit – this latest effort features nonprofessional actors (mostly rural Texans) playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, unmindful of, and unintimidated by, the camera’s sympathetic but unblinking gaze.

In Stop the Pounding Heart, the chief focus is Sara Carlson, the 14-year-old daughter of a devoutly Christian family devoted to Bible study and goat farming. From an early age, Sara has been taught that, as a woman, her role in life is that of a dutiful and subservient helpmeet – first as a daughter, then as a wife – forever bound by the strict moral precepts of the Scriptures. During what essentially is a coming-of-age story, Sara begins to view what she has been told is her destiny with doubts and questions. And not just because of her budding attraction to a young neighbor, Colby Trichell, an amateur bull rider.

Shot on location in Waller, Austin, and Houston, Stop the Pounding Heart takes its title from the comforting words of Sara’s mother, who asks God to ease her daughter’s troubled mind and keep her on the path of righteousness. As the film’s final image suggests, however, some discontents are not so easily assuaged.   

Minervini – who moved to Houston a few years back so his wife could reconnect with her Houston roots – takes a scrupulously nonjudgmental view of his “characters,” allowing the audience to share his role as empathetic yet impartial observer.  The subjects of his film – members of both the Carlson and Trichell families – will be on hand with him for a Q&A session following the 7:30 p.m. Friday screening at MFAH. But we couldn’t wait for that. So we tracked him down a few days ago, and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions. 

Okay, how would you categorize Stop the Pounding Heart? A dramatic documentary? Fact-based fiction? Or what? 

Well, technically speaking, this is not a documentary, because there's intervention, there's manipulation, there are fictional parts of the film. However, it documents reality, even when it's not pure observation, when it is staged observation. So, what does that make it? Well, you know, if you look back to [the] history of [the] documentary, there have been many, many filmmakers who use theatrical narratives and montages to create a dramatic [structure] for their documentaries. Honestly—and maybe this is a little rhetorical—but I think today, the distinction [between dramatic features and documentaries] is irrelevant, because the audiences are fully interchangeable today. You know, they used to be different. There were two audiences for fiction and documentaries. Today, audiences are responding to both. In my films, there’s an aesthetic that’s closer to traditional fictional filmmaking. There definitely is intervention. However, they also have a strong value as a documentation of reality.

How were you able to gain the trust of these families – the Carlsons and the Trichells—so that they would allow you such close access?

Well, I've known them for a while, so I think I did that job behind the scenes for years.  Establishing trust, intimacy, is the most important part of this work. For the Trichell family, the family of the bull riders, perhaps they felt they really had nothing to worry about. The work with them was more ethnographical and, in a way, had something to do with cultural heritage. And they were happy about it. With the Carlsons, the problem was their fear of opening Sara up to other influences, and to perhaps triggering an ocean of emotion – like, a tsunami of emotion— that could embarrass her afterwards. Ultimately, they decided – because they have a strong faith in God, perhaps—they had nothing to fear. So, it was a leap of faith on their part. That's just what it is.

Ultimately, the title of your film seems ironic – because, really, you don’t want Sara’s heart to stop pounding. You want her to remain discontented, to harbor doubts and raise questions.

That’s true. There’s a philosopher who once said that humans are condemned to freedom. I think Sara’s no exception to that. In her case, freedom means she has to make her own choices and she has to find her own meaning of life. And she has to deal with a pounding heart. There's no solution to that, there's only a leap of faith that she could take. Like at the end, her mother praises God, and asks God to be with Sara when the heart pounds really hard. But Sara’s pounding heart will not slow down.

Finally: What is there in your background that has made you able to connect with Texas and Texans?

In a way, Texas is not as distant from my upbringing as it seems. I come from a working-class, blue-collar small town of central Italy. Our life was simple. We enjoyed the outdoors and we enjoyed life with a tight group of friends. I think during all my travels, inevitably, I went and looked for realities that, in a way, were familiar. It didn't happen in New York City. When the place is too transient, globalized in a way, I don't exist. I don't belong there. I, too, become transient and I don't exist as a filmmaker. I need this one on one, this intimate relationship with people and places. But when they do resonate, you know, when I do feel that I am home—even if it's for a limited amount of time and it's not forever—I feel that connection. That's where I exist as a filmmaker. And it's no coincidence that as a filmmaker—as a fairly successful one now, especially in Europe—I am Texan. I am Texan because my successful films are from Texas. I am not an outsider with an insider look. I am an insider. I live here. So I'm not depicting something that is alien to me. I'm not alien to this reality.

 

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