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PostPosted: Sun Sep 04, 2011 4:06 pm 
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JOSHUA LEONARD AND VERA FARMIGA IN HIGHER GROUND

Evangelical disappointment

This "Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost" (adapted from a book by Carolyn S. Briggs), is a fascinating role for the Academy Award-nominated actress (for Up in the Air) Vera Farmiga. And it's also her directorial debut. It doesn't quite work as a film, lacking a central focus and suffering from a choppy and meandering opening section. But you have to give Farmiga credit for an unusual topic. We don't often see a Hollywood movie that takes dedicated Christians as seriously as this. The story transpires in the Hudson River Valley in the Sixties and Seventies, but it treats themes we'd usually find only in a film by Bresson or Bergman -- or, with more intensity then here, in Carlos Reygadas' Dreyer-esque 2005 portrait of Mennonites in Mexico, Silent Light.

Corinne (played first by McKenzie Turner, then by Farmiga's younger sister Taissa Farmiga as a teen) is raised in a rural evangelical Christian family. She puts up her hand as a girl when the rather creepy Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin) asks for children to say if they've felt the call of Jesus. She admits later that she really didn't; she just wanted to belong. She falls for a long-haired local rock star called Ethan whose group's called The Renegades. A few jump cuts later, they're married, and then have a baby. When the Renegades' traveling van runs into a creek and Ethan, Corinne, and the baby narrowly survive drowning, they take it as a sign from God and revert to Christianity, becoming pillars of a tight-knit suburban congregation.

It's this whole passage that's clumsiest. I had real trouble seeing even a remote connection between Joshua Leonard, Ethan's later born-again embodiment, and Boyd Holbrook, who plays the young Ethan. Ethan goes from romantic and rakish to sweet but stolid in a few more jump cuts. Not so with Corinne's wild sister Wendy (Nina Arianda), whose taste for fun and looks never change. Not much fun for Corinne (now played by Vera), who's a dutiful wife, mother, and parishioner but feels no spark -- except from her best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), an earthy Polish woman married to the equally earthy Ned (Michael Chernus). 'Nika can speak in tongues (even though it's a no-no in the sect), flirts with a highway cop, and furthers a Seventies-ish theme of sexual awakening by drawing pictures of her husband's penis, to flatter him that for her it's one of God's great wonders. Keeping marriage zestful in bed is also the pastor's up-to-date concern, and he gives a group of parish men a set of tapes on Christian pleasure in sex. "Clitoral stimulation is part of God's plan," he tells them. It's hard to know if some of this is satirical, or merely an accurate record of author Briggs's experience.

The little parish is seen weathering its severest spiritual test when Annika is sorely changed by an illness. The pastor's words of consolation are sincere and strong. But they don't appear to work for Annika, and probably don't ultimately work for Corinne either. Ned's resolute good cheer in the face of this disaster may be heartwarming but it's also a little sickening.

Eventually when Corinne and Ethan have three kids (but haven't aged visibly) Corinne loses interest in Ethan and the marriage goes wrong. Creepiness enters again when Ethan takes Corinne to another evangelical pastor doubling as a "therapist" who tells her threateningly, "You're worshiping at the altar of yourself." This confrontation shows woman's liberation has not penetrated to the Valley. After a moment of violence for which he repents Ethan accepts that the marriage is over, and Corinne goes off on her own and becomes interested in the smart and attractive Irish mailman (Sean Mahon) who chats her up in a library. A thinly developed theme is that Corinne is a little too intelligent and literate to be satisfied with a group of people who only know the Bible. But it takes a while for Corinne to realize the mailman is only being nice because he senses her need for poetry and an intellectual life and has no romantic interest in her.

Here again at the end the writing and editing seem to have made a hash of the memoir, because it's not clear what Corinne's status is in relation to her family, other than that she's moved into a rented room but still goes to the church sometimes. At her son's seventh birthday she and Ethan play around with a piece of birthday cake like it was their wedding cake again, but she won't kiss him. The movie ends with Corinne in church standing alongside her husband and children and delivering a long, self-indulgent speech to the little congregation about her lifelong search for faith. Not for the first time she seems like a frustrated minister ready to start her own Church of the Wavering Faith and Meandering Monologue.

Higher Ground may interest people fascinated by this milieu and the quest for religious belief. It will engage fans of Vera Farmiga's gem-like blue eyes and complexly nuanced performances. She is interesting to watch here even though her character often seems at sea. But spiritual dryness ultimately proves almost impossible to dramatize here. Apart from the trappings and rituals of evangelical Christianity, which aren't really the main point of the story, this often seems like a movie about nothing. The film doesn't depict a spiritual crisis, because Corinne never appears to have a strong enough faith to have one. And if you are looking for a devastating critique of evangelicals, you won't find that here. Neither is there any of the intensity of Bresson, Bergman, or Reygadas. All of which makes Higher Ground a pretty long slog.

Higher Ground premiered at Sundance in January and went into limited US release by Sony Pictures Classics August 28, 2011.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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