The toxic effects of religious indoctrination have been dutifully exposed in eye-opening documentaries such as Jesus Camp, yet in the gritty and authentic drama Stop the Pounding Heart — the finale in Roberto Minervini‘s Texas trilogy — it gets a more pragmatic if still unnerving depiction. If only the director were to rein in his insistent style and streamline his narratives, this might have amounted to something more than a flaccid disappointment.
The drama unfolds largely within one family, the Carlsons, whose 14-year-old Sara (Sara Carlson) is the center of the piece, and finds herself gradually gravitating away from her strictly biblical upbringing towards Colby, a young local bull rider to who she, against the teachings of her parents, is undeniably attracted. The lustful frisson is slight but surely there; it is simply a case of whether Sara will decide to act upon it or not.
Minervini’s approach will above all else demand patience from viewers, as we’re first shown a day in Sara’s life milking cows and heading to the farmer’s market to sell cheese. Though these sequences generally comprise too much of the 101-minute picture, the director does capture a few quaint snapshots of this unassuming life, likely a million miles away from home for the overwhelming majority of audiences. One glimpse of a heavily pregnant woman firing a gun, for instance, will likely gain as many laughs as it does gasps.
The narrative through-line, meanwhile, of Sara coming to question the life of abstinence she has been taught and seemingly chosen is conveyed subtly through conversational scenes between her and Colby, to the point that it scarcely musters a pulse, though definitely does. The strapping lad signifies another life for Sara, one which involves breaking away from the church and simply having fun, something strongly advised against by her firm, religiously committed mother in what is easily the best scene of the film (though smartly, the mother character is far from a one-dimensional zealot).
The film’s pondering minimalism, however, eventually lurches from enigmatic towards patience-testing, as the numerous dialogue-free scenes give us only the most scant morsels of information, dragging the film out to what feels like a wholly excessive runtime. A surreal flourish does briefly raise some interest — in one scene, a resident’s child breaks the fourth wall, staring gleefully into the camera — but it’s sadly straight back to staid tedium soon thereafter.
Amid the long, dialogue-free takes and generally spare approach, viewers will have plenty of time to consider exactly why we should care about what is happening, though such pondering may prove fruitless. Though it is undeniably slice-of-life cinema and authentic arguably to a fault — some characters can often not be understood, at least to this English pair of ears and as a result of low-budget sound recording equipment — the crisis of faith narrative has simply been done too often and too well before to let this unambitious effort pass muster.
Though his latest film plunges deep into the heart of southern American parochialism, Minervini has crucially forgotten to engage us on an emotional level.
The Upside: Performances are, in their naturalism, largely inscrutable; the cinematography helps bring the setting to life
The Downside: A sure lack of narrative thrust keeps the potentially engaging spin on familiar material stuck in first gear; never does the film reach for emotional resonance
On the Side: The film was shot using only available light sources (as opposed to movie lights).