Very occasionally when I receive a free screening pass it works out that for whatever reason, I’ve gathered zero background information about the film. I don’t know who’s in it, what it’s about, where it was made, and can only gather a rough indication of genre from the billing poster as I romp toward the candy bar. I had no idea about Higher Ground before I saw it, and thank goodness for that. Not only would I have ummed and ahhed about even going, but I would not have sat through it with such patience. Imagine my surprise at the provocative opening scene, a shot of a bearded, kaftan-clad, cross-draped, possible commune-member standing atop a rocky woodland gully, screaming elatedly about how Jesus saved him from a life of sin with all of the ‘ye shall’s and ‘hath unto’s left in. Odd as it sounds, it was the perfect start. I was immediately gripping the dashboard, nose pressed to the windscreen trying to see what lay ahead.
Higher Ground is a faith film. A serious faith film. Set in the 1970’s, Vera Farmiga plays the complex and genuine Corinne, a demure middle-American housewife who found God as a teenage mother in a band tour bus accident. Corinne’s life becomes intertwined with an insular but familial prayer group comprised of young couples whose overt, intense, often hammy displays of faith make Corinne sensitive to her own conviction. Just as her salvation from the bus accident generated her belief in the first place, it’s life’s misfortunes that wrestle it from her later, as her marriage sours, her best friend experiences a tragic change of health and the church stifles her leadership potential because she is a woman. Corinne’s desire for a grand, intimate connection to God and indeed her thoughtfulness and introspection tug constantly at her hem, reminding her that her brethren are not the only believers in the world, and certainly might not have all the answers.
The film is based on the memoirs of Carolyn S. Briggs, entitled This Dark World. This is iffy source material to begin with because lifelong inner spiritual struggle has no narrative arc or indeed climax. On top of that, the memoir itself seems to be the only notable achievement elevating Briggs’ life out of total obscurity. It was a maze of dead-ends; characters who disappeared before contributing to the plot, dialogue and conflicts that led nowhere, a lot of unfinished sentences. The integrity of this story wouldn’t have suffered from a bit of clever excision.
I should perhaps preface my dialogue here by noting that all ‘jesus movies’ evoke in me a very strong fight or flight response. Being of no particular faith myself I feel an acute need to rapidly identify what a religious movie wants to do to me. Is it condoning or condemning religious dogma, poking fun at radical groups, evangelising or attempting to advocate a personal, inner spirituality? I want to know this so that I can resist persuasion rather than go with the flow. I was really tested to do that with Higher Ground. I struggled to tell if it was preaching or parodying the believers that made up its centrepiece.
That Corinne truly doesn’t know what to think or feel about her faith really determines the tone of the film. If she’s in doubt, the film satirises her church and if she’s assured the scenes become flooded with angelic white light, delicate hymns play and Corinne wears Grecian chiffon dresses. When her trust in pastor Liam (Sean Mahon) falters, the script delivers him lines that render him foolish. Corinne makes an issue of women being sexually unsatisfied, but then is portrayed as uninterested in intimacy. Credence is given to speaking in tongues and signs from above, but equally the devil (not the man) is held responsible for domestic violence. In short, there is an abundance of mixed messages here. Whilst it’s hard to tell if the film’s uncertainty is careful genius or merely the uncontrolled flapping back and forth of a beached fish, Higher Ground is undeniably unusual.
Higher Ground is chronological. It feels like watching a memoir. Child actors play Ethan and Corinne as youngsters and adolescents. Whilst this first chapter explains the expectations characters have later in the film, it’s a dull, disjointed collection of scenes, and Taissa Farmiga (daughter to Vera) as young Corinne is utterly expressionless. I suspect this is due to the hazy nature of memory, that when Briggs was writing her life story, it was harder to recall her moods and thoughts as a youth than as an adult. She’s left her own childhood character underdeveloped as though she was merely a spectator to her own life.
There is no doubt that Farmiga, as both lead and director, has crafted a really majestic and believable performance. Farmiga has made the Corinne character the perfect protagonist – that is, a vessel or a lens with whom the audience sympathises and recognises themselves in. I suspect that this universality will allow audiences of various convictions to be venerated by her character, to walk away feeling affirmed in whatever they do or don’t believe in. Indeed, an older gentleman behind me sweetly sung along to the baptism hymn played over the end credits without any sense of bashfulness. I’m sure he experienced Higher Ground as a devotional film, and expected we were all harmonising along with him in the theatre, which his voice morphed momentarily into a chapel.
There is a great deal of beauty to Higher Ground. A reprieve is made of Corinne’s church group meetings, in which lovely acoustic hymns are played and members sway lazily with eyes drifting shut as they harmonise along. The era is reproduced with delicacy. After all, the Avant Garde fashion and culture of the 1970s could only quietly penetrate the lives of such a conservative flock. Nonetheless, there’s a soft intrusion of florals, beards, bangles, milkmaid tops, Fawcett bangs and interiors designed with every shade of brown and peach in mind.
In the end, perhaps at the behest of Corinne’s questioning nature, I have to question the existence of this film. I feel like throwing my hands up and asking ‘who is it for?’ Surely true stories that are made into films must be remarkable, inspiring or capture some kind of cultural idiom. Yet the search for conviction is not uncommon amongst Westerners, certainly those enduring crises or dissatisfaction. Higher Ground isn’t a remarkable story, and for those who might identify with it, there is no offer of solace or moral conclusion. It contains no grand miracles, supernatural appearances or epiphanies. It’s a slice of life, but isn’t a slice from the life of a believer or an atheist. I doubt it’s provocative enough to make any audience member question their own convictions, and even if it was, what end would that serve? What kind of person would make a film about wanting to believe but not knowing how? The more I cycle through these possibilities the more it seems like Higher Ground is simply a film about a strong, fraught woman, made for the purposes of dramatic entertainment. But that can’t be right, can it? A religious film with no agenda? But it is. When you think about it, what is more secular than biography – than an account of past facts, a history of empirical life in the shadow of heaven, regardless of how preoccupied we are by worship.
Yet, I am none the wiser for it.