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Film Review

Higher Ground

Recent estimates are that 26% of Americans are evangelical Christians, in a nation with 76% of adults who consider themselves Christian. These one in four Americans believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, the necessity of personal conversion ("born again"), and the sharing of the Biblical message by preaching, involvement in politics, etc. As we all know, evangelicals have become far more involved in politics in the past 20 years, and many of our views of evangelicals tend to be shaped by their political successes and often very conservative beliefs. Although most of us do not have such a rigid belief system, we often admire their nurturing communities, which support each other during adverse times and personal crises. In 2002, Carolyn Briggs, a member of a fundamentalist group in Iowa, wrote "This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost", about her experience of growing up in a fundamentalist community and her eventual loss of faith and separation from her church. Vera Farmiga, actress (but not well known until her role opposite George Clooney in "Up in the Air" in 2009), and now director, read Briggs' memoir and saw its potential for a film. Briggs co-wrote the screenplay and Farmiga shot her film, "Higher Ground", in less than 30 days in the Hudson River Valley, near her home.

Farmiga plays the adult Corinne, who grows up in a evangelical culture with a father who drinks. She is initially skeptical about religion. She marries young to her rock band musician boy friend, has a child, and is living a conventional life. But an accident that nearly kills her daughter convinces her that she should "let Jesus into her heart". She becomes "born again", in a lake side baptism depicted in the film, and then part of a strong evangelical community. There are evening prayer meetings at homes in addition to the normal Sunday church services. Members earnestly grapple with questions about faith, conduct, impulses, and the other normal aspects of human life. In a very funny scene, the men listen to a Christian sex education tape that says "clitoral stimulation is part of God's plan". Most look as if they were listening to a lecture on nuclear physics. But men are expected to be dominant, respected and obeyed. The women dress very modestly, most with prairie dresses that would have looked good in Kansas in the 1860's. Corinne is admonished by another woman for wearing her dress off the shoulder. As retrograde as all this sounds to us, the film portrays a strongly bonded loving and caring community. It would have been easy to parody this culture, but Farmiga is sensitive and sympathetic to their beliefs and lives. This gives the efforts of Corinne to remain a believer and keep "Jesus in her heart" all the more poignancy. Jesus is not in Corinne's heart, and she is anguished. But she is a questioner, and questions of belief do not sit well in the church. Her closest friend, Annika, is a voluptuous, earthy woman with strong beliefs, who speaks in tongues, which Corrine envies. They confide in each other and joke about some of the silly strictures of their faith. When Annika has a terrible misfortune, Corinne ponders that age old question: "Why do bad things happen to good people?" She asks: "God, where are you?", which is exactly the question that Terrance Malick asks in "The Tree of Life". Farmiga gives us a great sweetness in this film, but never maudlin.

"Higher Ground" is divided into chapters, with titles such as Renegade, Wilderness, and Wresting Until Dawn, and uses flashbacks to show Corinne growing up, with Famiga's younger sister (Taissa) playing Farmiga as a teenager. The resemblance is astonishing. Vera Farmiga is nothing less than sensational here, and although all the actors are good, Farmiga runs away with the film. A close second is Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays Annika. The soundtrack is lovely, principally Blue Grass style Christian songs and hymns, with banjos and guitars, which seem an organic part of these evangelicals' lives. Cinematography and editing are excellent. "Higher Ground" is a wonderful film. I came to love Corrine as she struggled with her loss of faith, a struggle that is rarely depicted in American films. Just opened at the Embarcadero and the Kabuki, so no excuse not to see this on the big screen. Have a great Labor Day.

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