Sunday, September 25, 2011

Higher Ground (2011)

Growing up in the Ozarks, I spent a lot of time at a religious campground run by my aunt and uncle. It was a 68-acre compound sprawled over the side of a mountain, and my family--my parents, brothers, and me--moved there for a brief period in 1989. I roamed over those hills and prayed among the trees, trying to get up early enough to read my Bible as the sun broke over the waterfall near our cabin. This period of piety and devotion did not last very long. I liked sleeping in too much. I also found that I liked reading Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker more than I liked reading the Bible. Within a year, my parents moved us into a house in a (relatively) nearby town--apparently I wasn't the only one who wasn't cut out to be a full-time missionary--but all through high school I still spent a lot of time out at the camp. In the summers, I was sent to their Boys Work Camp--a getaway for Christian boys that replaced water sports and pubescent sexual exploration with the edifying effects of labor and Bible Study. So while I never copped a feel at a summer camp, I did build a rock wall and read all four Gospels (I'm kind of a Gospel of Mark man, I think). The name of the camp, incidentally, was Higher Ground.

I was reminded of my time at the camp as I watched Vera Farmiga's new film HIGHER GROUND. Adapted from the memoir "This Dark World" by Carolyn S. Biggs, the film tells the story of Corine (played by Farmiga) a quirky young woman coming of age in the seventies who gives her life to Jesus after a near fatal accident. Together with her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) she joins an unnamed Protestant church run by Pastor Bill (Norbert Leo Butz) and his steely faced wife, Sister Deborah (Barbara Tuttle). For a while, the church seems to have every answer worth having to every question worth asking. As the years roll on, however, Corine begins to feel stifled, hemmed in by the patriarchal condescension of Pastor Bill and suffocated by the The-Lord-Wants-Me-To-Tell-You-How-Awful-You-Are helpfulness of Sister Deborah. Ethan, nice guy and devoted Christian husband that he is, can't figure out why Corine grows more and more distant. He tries to understand, but the only answer for Corine's unhappiness seems to be that God isn't good enough for her. She wants books and art and worldly friends. She wants more. But how can you want more than God?

Because HIGHER GROUND is a film about a woman's loss of faith (if 'loss' is quite the right word), it will strike many believers as something of an attack on that faith. I don't really think it is, though. It certainly judges the male-centric view of the faith and finds the church lacking in intellectual rigor, but it also plays fair with the congregation's sense of community and the way in which a belief in God's love can be as real as the love of one's own family.

The church in this film seems patterned after the Jesus Movement churches that sprung up in the later 60's and early 70's as an outgrowth of the hippie scene on the west coast. The great strength of Christianity, of course, has always been its malleability. This was the genius of the Apostle Paul, who foresaw (or, depending on how you look at such things, was granted the vision) that the story of Jesus would reach across the globe and translate well to different cultures. The Hippie Jesus that came out of the 60's was only the latest incarnation of the Son of God at the time. It's always worth remembering that black civil rights workers in the 50's who cited the words of Jesus as inspiration were opposed by racist white preachers doing the same. Or to use a different example, I once attended an exhibition at the National Gallery showing religious paintings and sculptures from Spain during the 17th century. Odd, I noticed, how much the Jesus in this art looked like a Conquistador from the 16th century. Every culture in every era remakes Jesus in its own image. Farmiga's film does a good job of showing a side of the Jesus Movement that most people are unfamiliar with, at least outside of the lyrics to "Spirit In The Sky." This film is a Jesus Freak version of Ibsen's A Doll's House.

As a debut, HIGHER GROUND shows Farmiga to be talented director.
This is a smart, often funny, very moving film. It's also a fairly flawed film, unfortunately. Major plot strands are left dangling. Corine's relationship with an earthy fellow believer (played by a luminous Dagmara Dominczyk) becomes the heart of the film's middle section but then, after a devastating development, is more or less abandoned. Likewise, the relationship between Corine's parents (played wonderfully by John Hawkes and Donna Murphey) feels like it's either too much or too little. Ditto Corine's relationship with her heathen sister. I'm not suggesting that every little storyline has to be tidied up, but the film is episodic and disjointed to such an extent that the overall power of the story is diminished.

Despite these flaws, HIGHER GROUND is still an impressive piece of work,
the rare film that addresses matters of faith head on. It reminds us how influenced we are by the rooms we find ourselves in, how quickly and easily our perception of the world is shaped by the people who surround us. "For where two or three are gathered together in my name" Jesus told his disciples "there I am in the midst of them." That statement, Corine learns, is one she does not have the faith to accept.

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