Roberto Minervini Talks ‘Stop the Pounding Heart’ & Faith and Adolescent Awakening

Roberto Minervini's Stop the Pounding Heart is the third installment in the Italian-born filmmaker's Texas trilogy, which also includes The Passage (2011) and Low Tide (2012). Blending elements of narrative and documentary, the feature follows a rural Christian fundamentalist family through the eyes of a teenager whose interest in the opposite sex is awakened when she meets a boy living nearby.

Sara is a young girl raised in a family of goat farmers. Her parents homeschool their 12 children, rigorously following the precepts of the Bible. Like her sisters, Sara is taught to be a devout woman, subservient to men while keeping her emotional and physical purity intact until marriage. When Sara meets Colby, a young amateur bull rider, she is thrown into crisis, questioning the only way of life she has ever known. The film is a portrayal of contemporary America and the insular communities that dot its landscape, Stop the Pounding Heart is an exploration of adolescence, family, and social values, as well as gender roles, and religion in the rural American South.

FilmLinc spoke to Minervini prior to this weekend's theatrical roll out of his film, which won a Donatello Award for Best Documentary in addition to other prizes in Leipzig and Turin, including Best Southern Film at the Little Rock Film Festival. Minervini shares his impressions of meeting the Carlson family, who are at the heart of this film, his methodology for telling a story, and his own struggle with faith.

Stop the Pounding Heart opens at the Film Society Friday. The other films in Minervini's trilogy will also screen next week.

FilmLinc: You were born in Italy but have worked a lot in the U.S. Still, I'd imagine this rural world of American Christian fundamentalism was quite a faraway concept. How did you find Sara and her family, and what appealed to you about this subculture?

Roberto Minervini: First of all, before being drawn to any particular story, I always work with people I'm comfortable with and have established a relationship with. So with the Carsons, I met them years ago at a farmers' market. I worked with them on a scene in The Passage and only then did I become familiar with their beliefs and passions. I found them to be very American in a way and also political in a way. After 9/11, I was living in New York. Since then there has been a fear of the unknown that has plagued America, and since then I've become very interested in what you may call 'Fundamentalisms.' For over a decade now there's been a resurgence of 'lost traditions.' The fear of the unknown has pushed a lot of Americans into that fundamentalism and tradition.

Homeschooling is a part of it and a move away from public education. There's also the resurgence of the Second Amendment. That is what has interested me—seeing the direction of conservative America after 9/11. For me it was important to understand that direction.

FL:  I hadn't read much about Stop the Pounding Heart before watching it, and over the first several scenes I thought it was a documentary. It's not, of course, but there is a blend between fiction and nonfiction. Sara Carson is central in the story. And while she's acting, the film parallels her life. Is that a fair characterization?

RM: That is correct. It parallels her life. In The Passage I got lost in the script so I threw it away and just started trusting in the characters. I continue doing that now. I alternate between pure and staged observation. When there's a previous meeting between Sara and me we will decide when and where to shoot. It usually comes from her life experience and we'll reenact some situations. So the parallel is there. She'll take some time out from her current life to reenact for me an aspect of her life from the [recent] past.

I haven't invented anything. There have been others who have done that. Jean Rouch, one of the founders of cinéma vérité talks about the 'shared anthropology' or the shared experience—needing feedback to keep the story moving. That was the same with me. Almost every morning Sara and I would have a breakfast meeting to talk about how to proceed. Feedback was vital to the film. And maybe in a way, they directed the story.

FL: Why do you think it was advantageous from the parents' viewpoint to take part in this?

RM: I think the advantageous was perhaps the opportunity to be exposed to something that happens only very rarely. There was perhaps a spiritual component in that it was a test of their faith in God. The father would think about whether this was a sign from God. Perhaps a test or an opportunity from [God]. But I also think it was an opportunity for growth. And it's been an opportunity for mutual growth. For them they could be exposed to culture and travel, which were things that were inaccessible to them. They traveled promoting the film—mostly in Europe for the past year.

And it was growth for me learning about their faith. Initially the motivation for me was political. I'm more agnostic. I struggle with faith or the lack thereof. It's been a painful journey for me spiritually. I'm extremely drawn to people who have faith—perhaps blind faith. I think I needed them as much as they needed me really.

FL: They're clearly very protective of their children spiritually and since they homeschool, it would suggest they're isolationists to a degree, so it's interesting they may have seen this as an opportunity to be exposed more to other cultures and the chance to travel.

RM: I don't know if it's so much about being isolationist. Sara talks about it. They're homeschooled more because the Bible isn't taught anymore. They belong to a network of families that they see in church and from the farmers' markets. It may be somewhat insular and their exposure is limited, but it's not really isolation. In some ways I think they're less isolated than I am.

FL: Have you ever seen the painting America Gothic? It's an austere image of a couple standing in what looks like their farm. They look very sturdy and duty bound. In my impression of the work it looks as if they may have a very disciplined lifestyle with limited or no time indulging in the spoils of life. And somehow I thought of this painting when I was watching Stop the Pounding Heart.

RM: I think I know the one you're talking about. The older couple with the [pitchfork]… Yes, the movie is definitely from the America of the south, so some of that austerity isn't quite there. But overall the family is actually wild. Yes some of the topics the film focuses on are austere, but really there's a sense of primordial freedom among them. There's a wild vibe though that you don't see but I'm drawn to. 

FL: The film is part of a Texas trilogy including The Passage, as you mentioned, and Low Tide. More broadly speaking, what drew you to that part of the U.S.?

RM: I think I'm drawn to the unknown, and that part of America is like the frontier for me. I moved to New York in 2000. But when I was first exposed to Texas I saw a people so proud, and it's so big. There was also something very opposite to who I am and I think that's it. When I see something that is so far from what I know, I am drawn to it. The first thing I did was a road trip there. The land is so non-homogeneous, which was big for me. The geography fascinated me. I also had easy access to people I met. Through this biker I met a lot of these people in this community. Had I not met him, all of Texas would have remained in this exotic state.