Directed by Vera Farmiga
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Dagmara Dominczyk, John Hawkes, Nina Arianda, Bill Irwin, Joshua Leonard
“[People] think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.” – Flannery O’Connor
“I need this to be real.” – Corinne in Higher Ground
The silence of God, especially in the face of pleas for delivery from evil, is the quiet agony of every believer, as even the Psalmist shows us (“Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning, oppressed by the foe?”). As American novelist Flannery O’Connor said in the letter quoted above, “I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe.”
Based on the spiritual memoir of Carolyn S. Briggs’s This Dark World: A Story of Faith Found and Lost, the film Higher Ground is the story of Corinne, a woman who loses her faith and is grieved by that loss. We first meet Corinne (played by Vera Farminga, who also directed this film), as a young girl from a broken family in Iowa (the young Corrine is played by Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s younger sister) and an aspiring novelist. She ends up writing songs with and falling in love with Ethan (Joshua Leonard), a Kurt Cobain-like rocker.
While on tour together they barely escape when a bus plunges into a river and this turns their minds to God and their eyes to the Scriptures. After converting to Christianity by way of “The Way” (a non-denominational modern-English translation of the Syriac New Testament), Corrine and Ethan move to Arkansas and join an evangelical Puritanical community called Fountain of Joy.
There Corrine becomes friends with Annike (Dagmara Dominczyk), a kindred spirit. Annika is an artist, like Corrine; but unlike Corrine, she is an earthy free spirit, someone who has resisted the Puritanism of the community. (Perhaps even a little too earthy — there is one tasteless conversation in which the two women discuss their husbands.) Their friendship is Corinne’s daily bread until Annika is diagnosed with a brain tumor, a tragedy that deals Corinne’s already wavering faith a mortal blow.
The loss of her faith leaves her estranged from, and unable to live with her deeply committed evangelical husband. It leaves her completely alone, carrying on as a single mother living alone with joint custody of her children. And while Corrine’s new life might perhaps be considered a life of relative freedom, it is no longer a life of joy. Not only has her family fallen apart, but in the final scene of the film, she openly admires those who have managed to retain their faith, implicitly mourning the loss of her own. (Indeed, in the memoir on which this film is based, Briggs writes of her loss of faith: “There is no God, I groaned inwardly. There is no God. What am I going to do?”)
What’s surprising about Higher Ground is that, although it’s a story of the loss of faith, not only does it refrain from demonizing people of faith, but the film exemplifies what might be called a religious commitment to verisimilitude. We get the whole truth about these Christians – not only their spots, but what makes them genuinely attractive. The members of Fountain of Joy Christian Community actually speak with wisdom, especially regarding matters of spiritual warfare and, yes, the difficulty of persevering in faith.
Indeed, as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Carol is not alone in her struggles: It turns out that many believers in the community are struggling with life and marriage-shattering woes.
The tragic flaw of these good people is the limitations that they have inherited from their Calvinist forbears, in particular the rift between nature and grace – a rift that places a grave suspicion on everything of the flesh and the world, which are regarded solely as provinces of the devil. In so rarified a spiritual atmosphere, it is unseemly, even impious, to mourn, even over a devastating loss.
And in fact the precise moment when Corrine’s faith gives out is in the midst of sweetly singing “It Is Well With My Soul,” which the community piously intones when meeting for the first time after such a loss. Grief, the flesh, humanity — all are elided over with well-meaning, but sentimental platitudes. (But again, it would be a mistake to view the film’s take on religion as critical. A better way to describe it would be “despairing” – for again, it is clear that Corinne mourns the loss of her ability to believe in the face of what she has suffered.)
And speaking of music, to my mind nothing in this film demonstrates the stunting confinement of the Calvinist dualism under which the Fountain of Joy community labors than the difference between Ethan’s music before his conversion and his music after. As a young rocker, Ethan writes and sings from his agony and loneliness, and his performances are overwhelmingly emotional, marvelous to behold. After he and Corinne convert, all Ethan and the other formidably talented musicians of the community ever sing are Jesus-saved-me songs (including one that simply repeats “The sweetest name I know” over and over and over). Don’t get me wrong, these songs are beautiful. But there are other songs worth singing, and that can be sung without endangering the soul.
Such an atmosphere could only be asphyxiating for someone like Corinne, whose artistic soul seeks to glimpse God’s beauty in the world and the flesh. Indeed, after Corinne separates from her husband, her liberation is most clearly expressed by the resurrection of her literary consciousness at the hands of her erudite Irish mailman, who reads aloud to her from the Irish poet W. B. Yeats. But, despite her manifest “liberation,” it is worth noting that Corrine is “rescued” from having an affair with the honey-tongued courier. As though there’s a still a God looking out for her or something.
It is also worth noting that the closing moments of the movie convey a wordless whisper of hope for both Corinne’s faith and her marriage (a moment that left this viewer stunned by first-time director Vera Farminga’s visual mastery).
Higher Ground is many things. But, most importantly, I think, it is a presentation of what happens to the Christian when he or she is taught to invest the things of this world with less importance than God Himself does. When pulled over by a cop after making a typical novice driver’s error, Corinne reassures the officer that she can keep her mind on the things above and pay attention to the road at the same time. It’s a perfect little summation of what every Christian in fact is called by God to do.
Mark Thomas Lickona is a screenwriter, critic, filmmaker and small-scale organic farmer residing in Los Angeles.