Friday, December 16, 2011

Higher Ground: between God and a hard place

This thing we’ve been calling the culture wars has in recent years aggregated at least one mighty bipartisan ethic: ambivalence is bad for you and your country; tolerance is a slippery slope; agnosticism is for wimps; which side are you on? (Just as an aside: How strange it feels to be posting this review so soon after learning of the death of God is Not Great author Christopher Hitchens.) Yet betweenness is a fundamental part of life; we are ever moving from one place or one absolute to another, most often learning the most we’ll ever learn while on route. Betweenness is what story is made of.

All this is just my way of contextualizing my strong feelings for the closing note struck by Higher Ground—something about which I feel no ambivalence at all. The directorial debut of Vera Farmiga, who also stars, is about living with religious values that remain fixed while one’s life remains insistently fluid. The movie is elegant, intelligent, sensual, and a little uneven—a few truly bum notes stand out against a predominantly careful and wise series of choices. But its closing moments sweep the central character up into a scene of un-showy yet immense bravery and still manage to leave us without firm resolution, and that absence is itself something meaningful.

Farmiga plays Corrine, who, having already conveyed a deep curiosity about Jesus as a child and having survived a potentially catastrophic accident with herself, her husband and her infant child miraculously intact, becomes in adult life a member of some radical New Testament community nestled somewhere in rural New York. Based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir This Dark World, Higher Ground begins with extended scenes depicting key moments in Corrine’s youth before catching up with her in the present, a time of great tumult: Corrine’s best friend (Dagmara Dominczyk), a vivacious, raven-haired fellow believer who has no problem leading a fulfilling erotic existence under God, becomes terrifyingly, senselessly ill; Corrine’s fierce intellect becomes increasingly unsatisfied by the gender codes of her sect and the pastor whom she admires yet resents; and Corrine’s unhappiness with her marriage to her high school sweetheart Ethan (Joshua Leonard) is about to overwhelm her normally unbreakable composure.

Despite the repression, despite moments of alarming, sudden violence, there are no clearly marked villains in Higher Ground, and Corrine’s heroism is a quiet one, rooted mainly in her refusal to shut out the voices of desire or doubt or the longings of the spirit. Farmiga depicts the religious community with both affection and frustration, at times celebrating the camaraderie, at others reeling from its enforced naiveté. Her approach only goes astray in the few moments where she tries to slip fantasies into Corrine’s waking life, and the story itself only feels awkward in a few scenes dealing with Corrine’s immediate family, such as the one involving her sister and a big bag of blow. As for her work as an actor in Higher Ground, I can’t say that Farmiga ever gets it anything but right. Her lack of judgement as a director carried over into her performance, so we see Corrine fully surrendered to the ecstasies of worship, mothering and fighting for her dignity in equal parts. The last seven or eight years has found Farmiga emerging as an interesting actress under the direction of Minghella and Scorsese, but we may just be seeing her at her very best here, taking on both roles, and directing herself.

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