Higher Ground Redux
A “Manifesto to God”

What can I say about Higher Ground that I have not said already?

Well, first: at the press screening last August, I wept uncontrollably through the closing credits. 

Why?  Well, as I noted in my review of the theatrical release,

Higher Ground is a tour de force of human subtlety and nuance… The paradox at the center of this film is the tension between the beauty of what faith stands for and the hurt and ugliness—or downright indifference—the practice of religion often inflicts on those who most desire (or need) to be “saved.”

Do you know what it feels like to be stranger in a place that ought to be your home?  I suspect many of us do—and it’s a tragedy.  In Corrine’s case, the Church is a place to which she longs to “belong”; and yet so many of her natural traits—her inquisitiveness, her intelligence, her passion, her honesty—are too often squelched by the straitjacket of religious bigotry and conformity.  It doesn’t help that her parents are, well, ungrounded in their own pursuit of the next bottle or beer or mod hairstyle, of course.  So Corrine abandons her Vacation Bible School faith, gets knocked up young in true Summer of Love fashion, and then “finds God” again after a near tragedy.

Vera Farmiga as Corinne in Higher Ground

Enter the earnest and inbred congregation of Jesus People led by Pastor Bill.  Corrine really longs for the “blessed assurance” of salvation that these True Believers express; she wants their confidence in Scripture’s promise that “all things work together for good”; she also wants to experience the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in her life.  But repeated “loving” reminders to “know her place” squelch her passion and only fuel her doubts.  And the fact that she’s far more honest about not measuring up to God’s standards than are those around her simply drives her further from where she thinks God is—and, perhaps, into the hinterlands where God is really at work.

The frustration in Corrine’s life culminates when she leaves a characteristically stilted “house church” meeting.  Those in attendance talk to each other in muted catch-phrases and euphemistically-couched and optimistically twisted expressions of spiritual denial.  Outside in the car, Corrine cries out to God in an honest fashion that should rend your soul—a fashion that would never fly in the midst of that house church gathering.  And when she asks God to reveal Himself to her, who should appear but her husband?  He is so alienated from her at this point, and their love for each so dead, that all he can coldly suggest is that she no longer bother coming to the meetings since her “heart isn’t in it.”

Oh, but her heart is so much in it!  And that’s the problem, as Corrine has no confidence in her own relationship with the Almighty, instead buying into the inferiority complex that others foist upon her.  And then she blames God because Ethan, her husband, doesn’t behave toward her in a godly manner—which is an issue of Ethan’s relationship to God, not Corrine’s.  And God has no silver bullet for Ethan’s failings.

My review of the theatrical release does a fine job of analyzing the thematic substance of the film, commenting on both the “strange design” of Corrine’s divine encounter and the contrast between Corrine’s and Ethan’s pursuit of and over-reliance on their chosen “instruments of faith.”  I also correctly gauged the symbolism of the film’s many dogs and pigs, sussing that out in the context of Hebrews 13:11-14. 

Having missed out on an opportunity to interview star and director Vera Farmiga, however, I was left to conjecture a bit on Farmiga’s personal relationship to faith.  The commentaries and Bonus Features included with the DVD/Blu-ray Combo Pack release of the film clear a lot of that right up.

Farmiga speaks eloquently about the tendency of faith-based films to fall into one of two camps: either “films for Christians” or “films that parody Christianity.”  Higher Ground aims to be neither. It is, says Farmiga in an accurate assessment, “just actually about faith”—and faith in general, not a specific faith or practice of religion.  “I’m wrestling something nameless,” says Corrine at one point, “without form or void.”  And that’s intended to evoke a genesis of faith, a divinely creative struggle out of which great good will grow.  Tragedy is bound to ensue when institutionalized faith can’t celebrate and embrace something so fundamentally divine and instead marginalizes and castigates it.

But Farmiga won’t be party to such marginalization and castigation. In Higher Ground “I saw a good many Christians I have personally known,” I wrote in my earlier review, “captured in great detail and treated with respect.”  I’m sure Farmiga has known such people too—and she sees the good in them, and loves them.  What more could we ask?  As Ethan declares in the film’s opening scene, “Standing up for God—it’s not an easy thing.”

But here, finally, is the second entirely new thing I have to say about Higher Ground: far too few people have seen this small treasure.  The film grossed less than a million dollars during its theatrical run—so while I can’t necessarily recommend that you rush out and buy this film, I do heartily recommend that you at least rent or stream it.  Anybody who cares at all about people of faith—if not faith itself—should find a great deal here to think about and enjoy.

It may even move you to tears.

Higher Ground is rated R for “some language and sexual content.”  Yes, there is some talk about marital sex and genitalia.  But if that kind of thing concerns you, be assured that this is not some Paul Rudd / Seth Rogan twenty-something sex farce.  This is like, oh, Christian locker-room or powder-room snigger-talk.  It’s not shameful at all.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Greg attended a press screening of Higher Ground.