The Quest for Higher Ground: A Review of Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground

I love movies. I love the ability to escape the mundane for a few moments to swirl through a Bondian adventure. I love the chance to escape the confines of my own eyeballs and brain to live in the life of another. This is the bargain between the movies and I, you give me a chance to step out of my life for 2 hours, and I give you my attention (and of course a few of my hard-earned dollars). For this reason it is all the more surreal when a movie transcends its agreed-up boundaries and leaps into one’s own life. When it tells your story better than you could ever attempt to do, or teaches you something about yourself that they had never know before that fateful viewing. At risk of seeming silly, I had experienced this ability a few times in such movies as SLC Punk, High Fidelity, Love Actually, 500 (Days of Summer), and a few others. These were grand moments seeing myself in a movie up on the screen in a character, plot, yearning, or action.

Moments ago I sat transfigured by the lights of my TV as I found myself there again. Months ago, I read the reviews and had been inspired by interviews with Vera Farmiga concerning her directorial debut in Higher Ground. Yet (thanks again, to the lack of a good art house in Alabama[1]) I just recently was able to sit down with this gem of a film based on the memoir This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S Briggs. I have not read said memoir (it is going quickly onto my wish list), but media reviews tout it as a fresh, realistic, and emotional tale of one woman’s struggle to find an authentic faith. The movie follows Corinne (played wonderfully by daughter-mother pair Taissa and Vera Farmiga) as she moves from a dysfunctional family to an existence with her family in an unnamed church (referred to as Fountain of Joy in the memoir). This church was of the Fundalmentalist / Bible type pioneered during the Jesus People Movement.[2] In this church the faith is real, emotions show up (when not discouraged by the menfolk or judgmental ladies clique), and the religion being practiced means something to these people.  Unlike the editors of the memoir Farmiga takes great pain to present the faith and lives of these families in neither a positive or negative light.[3] Farmiga questioned about the tone, stated that:

“It’s not even a positive or negative portrayal; I’m not skewing it either direction. I’m just showing a legitimate struggle—the struggle to find intimacy in our relationships with God. It takes an enormous amount of courage to say “I’m struggling” and to find your voice. That honesty, the terror, the fear—it’s brutal, the admitting of that. But God is big enough to accommodate it.”[4]

Truly it was refreshing to spend time with a series of on-screen Christians who were presented as real 3-D human beings. Each person on screen seemed real. In fact in many cases I found myself relating to the characters greatly. These struggles and faults, victories and strengths fleshed out the story greatly (truly, Farmiga has shared her former co-stars George Clooney and Matt Damon’s ability to bring out the best in her performers when they move behind the camera). As for the loving church scenes, they were many times I found myself reliving my own childhood experiences.[5] It was oblivious that someone involved with the production had truly lived this life.

In times like these, one may read the preceding praise yet remain waiting for the ‘but.’ It is the de rigour form for these things, and there is a ‘but’ here as well. For many of us Christians that ‘but’ comes in the portrayal of the dark sides of these churches. While I must say a thank you to Farmiga and Briggs for showing us what we look like in a mirror, any Christian would want to expound upon this theme. In the above-mentioned interview, Mathewes-Green[6] hones her point stating “A lot of that has changed since the ’70s; the role of women is very different than it was four decades ago.” This, not unexpectedly, was question that did not seem to connect with Farmiga (or maybe that is bad or malicious editing- though I would not expect such a slight from CT, other companies, yes). Yet I am forced to admit the scenes surrounding the lack of male wisdom, lack of male accountability, lack of emotional intelligence, intellectual coherence, and the outright hostility to female intelligence, emotion, experience, and existence do not lack a historical or current (sigh) honesty.

To take one scene explicitly, the pastor asks of anyone present has anything to say, add, or testify to during a meeting involving the entire church (a common experience in those  days which I wish we would see more of, to be honest). Corinne stands up and states that she was praying with another woman and heard from God. The pastor squirms, attempts to shut her down, and then interrupts with the statement that if any of the women need prayer that he and the elders would be glad to do so. The implication being that this woman was not qualified to ‘preach’ or ‘pray’ for others.[7] As someone who has experienced such a comeuppance from the pulpit of a well-meaning but insecure pastor[8], I was horrified. Several other scenes paint the petty dramas and problems of having the poor judgment to have received a ‘y’ chromosome from one’s mom, and then attempting to go to church. Add to this my anger at the male character for not even attempting to reconcile with his wife (he seems a passive creature awed by, scared of, and unable to connect with his passionate, intellectually gifted wife) and one can feel the horrors of a Christian life as it could have been or should have been.[9] To these I can only say mea culpa. Unfortunately the church has long been filled with bastards, scoundrels, lusthounds, and assholes just in need of salvation and grace as much as the next person.[10] In addition to these the church has also long be packed with humans who have the great impertinence to act human (that is dumb, ignorant, and imperfect) from time to time. To those who would require that Christians be perfect and never fail the church, their savior, or each other, I can only quote Christ, himself, “let the one without sin cast the first stone.”[11]

The Church (particularly the church as it is seen in this film) stands a long way from the standard of Christ. We hurt. We ache. We grieve. We struggle (many times unsuccessfully). We fall down. We lust. We lurch. We shut down.[12] Yet we also succeed. We also shout in joy. We also get back up. Such is the reality of our existence. I would argue that there are many of us that would whole-heartedly feel the power of Corinne’s monologue at the end of the film in which she reveals the fact that while she knows she has connected with God on occasion she has also spent much time waiting on the porch of her heart waiting for God to come but not seeing hide nor hair of him.[13] Tears glistened at the corners of my eyes as Corinne hung there in the doorway looking at the church weighing her exit, or perhaps re-entry. I’ve been there, done that, and now have a favorite movie about that moment and all those conflicted feeling of the truly and honestly faith-filled. But that leaves the single-greatest tragedy of the film. The fact that as she bared with her soul and its troubles, the church hu-rumped and went back to its order of service allowing her to walk to the door. And that is the greatest truth and problem as revealed by the film the real inability to step off our high places, wrap our arms around the lost and hurting, and usher them back into the loving embrace of the beloved community. It is a haunting flaw, what my English teacher called hubris, and if we cannot find a way to maturity, honesty, emotional stability, and love then Corinne / Briggs will not be the last to make that march down the aisle away from the altar and to the door. In this respect Farmiga stands for generations of like-minded people when she ends her interview saying:

 “So for us, God is in temples and in churches, and on park benches. I don’t belong to any particular church, but I’m someone who will be able to walk into any place of worship, any house of worship, and have a direct correspondence.”

So here we can learn from Farmiga. We can learn what it means to get out of the comfortable spaces of our own worship spaces and be able to experience the greatness of our God in the unordered confines of the world, and other-ordered confines of other denominations.[14] As she so aptly demonstrated in this film and stated in her interview, our God is big enough for it. The question is, are you?[15]

[1] Seriously in the Birmingham metro area we have almost 1 million people, and 10 theaters but only 2 of those devote screens to non-mainstream fare (much less independent) and even then those 2 theaters devote 1 screen occasionally to film.

[2] Point of historical clarity the Jesus Movement is most often identified with the Charismatic Movement; however, as the movie points out some of the hippies getting saved in the JM funneled into Fundalmentalist / Bible Churches (which believed such Charismatic ‘excess’ as ‘speaking in tongues’ was wrong). John MacArthur (the Charismatic critic and author Charismatic Chaos) would probably been a favorite of this church.

[3] My literal-minded (not that there’s anything wrong with that) mother walked in mid-movie, sat down, and promptly complained about another movie making fun of Christians (I annoyingly shushed her); but any of my Atheist friends would probably be just as upset at another movie that presents the Christian light as real and important.

[4] Frederica Mathewes-Green. “Vera Farmiga Struggles with God.” Christianity Today Online (CT Entertainment).

[5] I, too, grew up in a church that had emerged from the Jesus Movement (as have my parents). Two differences exist between us: 1) my church was on the Charismatic line, and 2) though both of us have made journeys outside these church (while never really leaving), I have returned there and proudly stay (if at times frustrated in many of the shortcoming highlighted on screen).

[6] One of the great Christian Feminists and writers of our day.

[7] Even other women which is a little strange as much Fundamentalist churches get around the so-called Pauline admonishment against female leadership by allowing women to teach and  pray for other women (while ‘remaining quiet’ in front of the men). This backdoor practice has always irked me to no end and I have often joked that I would prefer these churches just be intellectually honest and shut down women completely. After squirming through this scene that joke is banished with other tasteless jokes for which I am now appalled.

[8] Long story, not for this time around. I will say it’s happened once on purpose (I think), and a couple of times when the well-meaning pastor went on rants against beliefs I have held dear.

[9] I have not even gotten in the subplot surrounding Corinne’s best friend Nika played amazingly by Dagmara Dominczyk. One could write a long paper on this film.

[10] That is wrong, they are, perhaps more in need of grace as some of us. The professional term for these people is EGR (extra grace required). Don’t be mad at me, when I used the terms you thought of Christians you knew, admit it.

[11] Farmiga, to her credit, does a good job of not lobbing stones, but letting them lie as they were. Many Christian directors (if they used scenes like these at all) would immediately follow them up with the character showing remorse or finding redemption in their fallenness; while a Hitchens or Dawkins would paint the scene then insert some smug element that said, “look at these fucking smug assholes, just fucking look at them, the hypocritical bastards.” Farmiga goes for neither extreme, letting the movie speak for itself.

[12] I just accidently just typed ‘shit down.’ Freudian slip? Perhaps I should have left it that way.

[13] The film did a great job when it namechecked the Christian classic Dark Night of the Soul. So I was waiting for them to compare Corinne to Mother Teresa who famously expressed a similar sentiment in her journals (time and again).

[14] And perhaps even religions.

[15] Allow me to end this essay by stating my prayerful hope that Farmiga and Briggs might find the God they are looking for. May they be blessed with the presence of God in their lives. May they experience the joy that comes from perseverance and growth through the flames. And may the men and women of Fountain of Joy experience conviction over their faults and find the redemption they too are seeking. Amen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: