In Christian theology the phrase “dark night of the soul” refers to a period of time in an individual’s spiritual life when the love and presence of God is felt completely removed from his or her spirit. It is said Jesus experienced it on cross when he cried, “My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” The phrase was coined by poet and mystic St. John of the Cross in his poem and later treatise La Noche Oscura del Alma. It describes a time when all spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, mortification, and the sacraments seem fruitless. A time when the Lord’s ear is turned to deafness, at least in the mind of the faithful. It’s somewhat of a spiritual midlife crisis. Few movies seem to deal with this subject, usually settling for the much simpler story of conversion. Higher Ground not only deals with the dark night of the soul, but deals with it well.
It is a film of reverence and symbolism. A modern parable of the prodigal son (or in this case daughter). Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, Source Code) stars as the prodigal, Corinne, an intelligent and thoughtful housewife who is lost in the mire of spiritual disarray following a flippant and sinful teenage years and a sudden and fervent conversion to Evangelical Christianity. This is also Farmiga’s directorial debut. Originally on fire for Jesus, her faith (as well as her marriage) begins to cool and she finds herself in a stagnant pond of stale worship. She is surrounded by relatives, husbands, and friends who preach to her in a loving yet condescending manner rather than reel her back into congregation. As her discontentment grows, she longs more and more for unshakable faith.
The film starts off as somewhat of a satire, poking mild fun at the Bible-thumping of the believers, yet never in a scandalous or disregarding manner. The picture regards its characters as genuine and loving people who, though ignorant of the world in their conservative faith, are perfectly happy and righteous in their innocence. Points are made about the Evangelical pastors forbidding a woman to speak in church. Many of the Christian women in the film drift slightly into the land of holier-than-thou, yet it’s all in kind charity. However misguided their approach to religion may be, or however strange their interpretation of Scripture becomes, their ultimate goal is to see you in heaven (and if that means you get your feathers ruffled along the way, then “so let it be written; so let it be done!”). Still, these people are hardly stereotypes. We are spared from the rantings and ravings of the typical “Bible preacher” and Glory be and the Saints be praised the parishioners don’t have southern accents.
Somewhere along the line the story takes a more serious shift. Corinne becomes more and more disenfranchised with her brothers and sisters in Christ and her faith begins to wane. Here, the typical turn for a movie would be to cheer Corinne on as she casts off the shackles of religion, yet Higher Ground avoids this unfortunate cliché. The film remains ever-reverent, always pious and never mocking. Higher Ground is not a picture of the evils of religion, yet it is realistic. The lines between good and bad are not so clearly laid out as I’m sure many Christians would like. This is not Facing the Giants or Fireproof where it was fairly easy to discern the black and white. Higher Ground is refreshingly supportive of religious belief, yet it admits that in every crop there’s a bad seed. Corinne is a conflicted woman, thus is the movie.
Vera Farmiga shows some skill as director as well. She is utterly believable as Corinne, yet behind the camera she seems to have a well-trained eye. As cinematographer she has hired Michael McDonough, who photographed last year’s Winter’s Bone (my pick for the best of the year). Here his work is brighter and more colorful, yet still beautiful and effective. The picture has a soft-sepia, washed out glow to it that imitates perhaps some American age, needle-point icon. Similar images might appear on homemade pot holders or in grade school primers. At 109 minutes the scenes race by. This was one of the quickest experiences in film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s well-paced and well-edited, and we’re not forced to feel sad or happy or overwhelmed by ridiculous orchestral music soaring to blast our ears at every emotional moment. This is a quiet, artistic picture with a lot of good will.
At the beginning, a young Corinne is in Sunday school and the pastor asks the kids to raise their hands if they want to invite Jesus into their hearts. Corinne raise her hand just to be a conformist. Of course she has no idea what she’s doing. I remember being at kid’s church (there’s an oxymoron) in my younger years and being told that if I said a certain prayer Jesus would be my “forever friend”. It’s a well meaning phrase that I came to contempt as disrespectful and blasé toward the second person of the Blessed Trinity, still it had lots of charity in it. And of course when you’re six and you’re told someone will be your “forever friend”: well then! This is no joke! I imagine that must be what young Corinne is thinking. She’s skeptical, yet willing. Corinne’s succeeding journey through the curiosities of God is an involving and immersive hour and fifty minutes. Some movies really draw you in and some keep you at arms length. I guess I don’t need to say that I was drawn in.
At some points the film is difficult, like when Corinne’s children tell their mother’s less than orthodox sister that she’s going to hell because she hasn’t “found Jesus”. It’s an extremely uncomfortable scene to watch, because we know how sad that sounds. Still, these people honestly believe it. They are not the stereotypical hate machines that the media generally depicts as Fundamentalist Christians. No, every character here is real. None are just character mill wooden cut-outs.
Higher Ground hardly follows a typical narrative structure. It’s told in well-defined, subtitled acts and avoids the typical build build CLIMAX formula. I think it should appeal to anyone with an interest in the psychology of faith. In fact, people with lessened or lukewarm faith will probably be the most intrigued by this film’s subtleties and nuances. Ultimately, regardless of production values or director or performances, the picture succeeds because of its excellently written screenplay by Carolyn Briggs. Peace be with you. This is one of the year’s best pictures.