Left Behind

‘HIGHER GROUND’

If, like myself, you are both a Catholic and a cultural snob and find it all too easy to sneer at Protestant fundamentalist sects that seem awash in bare-bones ugliness—of architecture, language, and rite—and whose members display an enthusiasm during worship that resembles hysteria, you have to be grateful for such films as Tender Mercies, The Apostle, and now Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground. These movies breach our snobberies with evocations of the spiritual comfort and social solidarity such congregations can offer. But Farmiga, adapting Carolyn S. Briggs’s memoir, This Dark World, has taken on a double task, not only to portray a fundamentalist faith community with sympathy but to show how her heroine, Corinne (played by Farmiga), must finally step away from it to maintain her integrity.

Corinne’s first step toward religious commitment is an ambiguous one. As a Midwestern child she hears the pastor of her family’s church (its denomination is unidentified) urge his young class at vacation Bible school to pledge themselves to Jesus if they sincerely feel the call. The kids are told to close their eyes while listening for this call, but Corinne keeps hers open, sees two classmates volunteer by raising their hands, then raises hers too. So does her pledge come merely from an urge to feel special? To be part of an elite?

Corinne grows into a thoughtful adolescent (played beautifully by Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa), who wants to be a writer. Made pregnant by her high-school sweetheart Ethan, she seems about to settle into the life of homemaker for her neophyte-rocker husband when a car accident that almost kills their baby shocks the couple into religion. Welcomed by a fundamentalist community, both seem not only happy but positively blissful. Over time fissures appear. Corinne chafes at the community’s paternalism (after speaking up during a service she is rebuked for “preaching to the men”), its cultural bareness, and an occasional primness that suggests prurience (the pastor’s wife warns her against wearing a perfectly modest maternity dress that merely reveals her shoulders). The tipping point comes when her best friend, the sensual but pious Anika, is rendered a shell of herself by a cancer operation. Does humble acceptance of catastrophe—“not our will, oh Lord, but thine”—only repress the fears and doubts such horrors stir? In any case Corinne cannot quite accept what’s happened to her friend. She quarrels violently with her husband, leaves him, and finally takes wistful leave of her fellow worshipers, departing not as an unbeliever but as a spiritual pilgrim. She admits that they occupy the highest ground but she can’t occupy it. Not yet.

What makes this film believable is the way the script (by memoirist Briggs and Tim Metcalf, though I suspect the cast improvised much of the dialogue) lays the ground for the heroine’s discontent early but without melodramatic danger signals. In fact, close-ups of Corinne’s face are foreboding enough; both the Farmiga sisters have countenances alive with the need to doubt, question, explore, communicate, and debate. Since the profound spiritual strength of her community, wonderfully supportive of Anika’s family after her surgery, resides in their ability to accept, not question, there’s going to be trouble with Corinne.

I think this gripping film could have been even stronger if the script had been more specific about how the public events of the story’s era (mostly the 1980s, I’m guessing) did or didn’t come to Corinne’s attention, and whether she felt that her community, hunkered down in faith, was saving her from the era’s moral dangers or was preventing her from creatively participating in its social and cultural struggles. Did absolutely nothing of the great wicked wide world leak into this milieu? I couldn’t tell if the filtering was being done by the community or by the filmmaker.

But what Higher Ground does dramatize trenchantly is the paradoxical way this community encourages family unity yet also exacerbates familial problems. Since they’re taught that domestic harmony is essential to Christian values, spouses may experience normal domestic frictions and the simmering down of sexual passion as calamities, and one partner may come to regard the other as a backslider or even a traitor, not only to the spouse but to God. When the sex life of Corinne and Ethan dwindles, he upbraids her in religious terms instead of honestly discussing the matter. When she tells him off, he starts to throttle her. That he then externalizes the cause of his violence by telling Satan to leave him is both telling and depressing. The coup de grace for the marriage is delivered by, of all people, a Christian marriage therapist, whose idea of counseling is to put all the blame on Corinne, warning her that she’s risking hellfire.

Still, most of the congregation remains likable, even admirable, particularly its pastor, rendered by Norbert Leo Butz, not as a Christianized Big Brother but as a mensch so entirely free of smugness and bigotry that it makes Corinne’s decision to leave his fold all the more of a struggle for her and all the more compelling for us.

As for Farmiga’s performance, anyone who has seen this actress on TV talk shows struggling to give utterly honest answers to banal questions can imagine what it means for her to embody a character searching for her spiritual core. In interviews, that honesty can make her maddening as she lapses into long thoughtful silences, but in the movie Farmiga’s superb timing and coiled energy harness that honesty and channel it into an absorbing performance.

In fact, Higher Ground is very much an actor’s movie, and the director uses her camera somewhat as a documentary director would, not for composing beautiful pictures but to seek out the right face at the crucial moment, to fasten on a speaker or a listener, or to catch a gesture that says more than a line of dialogue. This is not one of those films that leaves you with just the contours of a tale in your mind. Rather, you come away with the feeling that you’ve just been to a meeting filled with a lot of interesting people, and now you need time to sort out your impressions of them.

My only major reservation is that each scene drives a little too unerringly to its “point” without taking the unpredictable little detours that distinguish an unforgettable scene from a merely functional one. For instance, there’s nothing comparable here to that moment in Tender Mercies when Tess Harper, about to pray for husband Robert Duvall, who may have gone off on a bender, is innocently quizzed by her little boy about drugs. She blows up at him unfairly, then tries to recover her calm for the prayer. Why the interruption enriches the scene is difficult to say (is the wife’s customary sweetness thrown into relief by the temporary flare-up?), yet it does. Because it contains many moments like that, I’ve been able to watch Tender Mercies six times and am ready for a seventh. But when I took a second look at Higher Ground, I discovered I’d “got it” all the first time. But don’t cheat yourself of one viewing.

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It has often struck me that each Christian denomination, and perhaps even each religion, excels in the expression of some aspect of the human experience of the spiritual, but often excludes others.The Russian liturgy, in Old Slavonic, is rich with the shared experience of the numinous, that comes perhaps from its relatively unchanged character over centuries of use.  One cannot open oneself to it without experiencing that shudder, that tingling, regardless of one's beliefs.  The Latin Mass and the Book of Common Prayer used to do that, as they still do for older congregants, until they became the vehicle for reactionary opinions on other matters.  Those who revised the liturgy of the Catholics and the Anglicans -- very similar in verbal and conceptual content -- wanted it to communicate with those whom they thought could not understand the language of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations.  They wanted to convey doctrine, for theological and evangelical reasons.  What they lost was a rich shared past, in which different elements within the respective Churches could feel the weight of history, and a shared present, in which worshippers from different communities or countries, as well as those who had lapsed until some crisis had beset them, could come together in a familiar ritual.  Theologians rarely pay attention to the emotional content of ritual and familiarity. When the Calvinists whitewashed church walls in England, Scotland and the Dutch Netherlands, they thought they were removing ritualism and idolatry.  Of course, white walls are also ritual objects.  However, serious Calvinists did pursue a much closer attention to the biblical text and the workings of Providence, and a less casual use of their messages among the laity, than other Christian traditions did.  The average standard of scholarship and preaching among their ordinary clergy was usually much higher than in other Christian traditions, however much they may have tended to abandon the heights of Catholic humanist scholarship among their academics.Old Slavonic is also under challenge from the influx of Russian kleptocrats, former apparatchiks or blackmarketeers, unable to understand the liturgy but interested in the Church as a locus of power and nationalism, and able to buy influence over the bishops, many of whom have Soviet pasts to hide.  There is not enough of an intellectual tradition among the Russian (or Greek) clergy to resist.Quakers, on the other hand, exemplify the power of silent prayerful thought and the possibility for a group to come together gradually until they are thinking as one.  Unlike the ordinary Catholic or Anglican in the pew, who has never heard of the great 17th-century preachers, Quaker meetings are often studded with references to writings of the first and second generations of Quakers.  The Quaker tradition is under threat, as are those of some other denominations, by the influx of converts.  The Quaker witness for peace is better known and more readily accessible than that of the Mennonites, but converts often believe that matters in meetings for business can be decided by forceful argument or votes.  That is not the Quaker way, but birthright Quakers, born to Quaker parents and educated in Quaker schools, can be overpowered by the newcomers.Pentecostals provide an expression of the ecstatic aspect of religion, especially in black churches, however strange that seems to straitlaced Christians.  Of course, many found the Christian mystics heretical or even demonic.  And so on.  We can go through the various denominations in this way, especially the older ones, although the Presbyterians and Congregationalists changed dramatically under the impact of the evangelical activity of the Methodists and General Baptists during the Second Great Awakening.The Protestant fundamentalists, however, although they have grafted various other traditions onto themselves, as they have swallowed up whole sections of other denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, are focused on the authority of the preacher's interpretation of carefully selective texts, which is purportedly literal.  The experience of the believers has been subordinated, very much in contrast to most forms of traditional American Protestantism.As in a Marxist sect, the believers are told what to believe, with the doctrine always superceding individual experience.  None of us experience the world unfiltered, but we expect to have some scope for our own understanding and conscience.  Not so for modernist movements, where the expert reading of Marx or the Scofield Reference Bible, in these examples, is at the heart of the movement.Perhaps we can see this in other religious traditions, including the growing application of this authority to the world of politics, that is so different from Baptist traditions.  However, it seems very unlike the other denominations of today.  Catholic bishops seem to want to go down this river too, one that past bishops navigated with varying degrees of skill, but it is no longer the same river.

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.