Here's a review which appears on Christianity Today Movies, of a new movie
by Vera Farmiga. I was also able to interview her, and that article follows
Deck: A woman’s experience with evangelical Christianity from the
certainties of new conversion to later struggles with faith.
Theater Release: Aug 26, 2011, Sony Pictures Classics
Directed by: Vera Farmiga
Runtime: 110 min.
Cast: Vera Farmiga (Corinne), Donna Murphy (Kathleen), John Hawkes (CW),
Dagmara Dominczyk (Annika), Nina Arianda (Wendy), Bill Irwin (Pastor Bud)
When evangelicals hear that there’s a new movie about their brand of
Christianity, they get nervous. All too often they are presented as idiots
or villains. Stereotypes about narrow-mindedness, intolerance, cultish
mind-control, and harsh subjugation of women abound.
Carolyn Briggs’ 2002 memoir, *This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found
and Lost *hit a number of those notes. When their church leaders counsel her
not to get a college degree, when they counsel her husband to forgo a plum
job opportunity because they need instead the headship of the church
leaders, when she refused medication during a complicated pregnancy and
scoffed at taking shelter during a tornado, well, it sounds to many
evangelicals like a pretty kooky church, if not a cult. But don’t expect
members of the general public to make that distinction. *Christianity Today’
*s review commented, “Unfortunately, this book is likely to win plaudits for
its savaging of evangelical Christianity as the source of one woman’s
oppression, and her abandonment of that faith as a fount of liberation.”* *
News that *This Dark World,* retitled *Higher Ground, *was coming to movie
screens did not cause skipping and strewing of flowers in the *Christianity
Today *editorial offices. And yet—what a surprise. This movie presents a
church that is really endearing. It’s a small community, and we meet them
first in the 1970’s as a gang of Jesus Freak hippies, gathered for a joyous,
noisy river baptism. The guys are long-haired and bearded and have amiable,
sweet expressions. The women wear prairie dresses and have personalities.
Corinne, the lead character, is extra-bright but subdued, an observer. When,
in an early scene, her boyfriend makes love to her in a meadow, he has an
ecstatic experience while she waits it out, occasionally furrowing her brow.
The character in the film who lights up the sky is Annika. She is funny,
creative, shapely, sensuous, and mischievous. Her husband describes her as
loving “drama, art, and nature.” She counsels Corinne not to let the sexual
fires in marriage die, and imparts that she likes to draw pictures of her
husband’s penis. (We see Annika’s bedroom later on and yes, she certainly
does.) When a cop pulls the two over and tells Corinne she was exceeding the
speed limit, Annika puts on a foreign accent and explains to the cop that
she was having an underwear emergency and the Corinne was trying to help
When the two are relaxing in a boat on a river Annika begins to pray aloud
in tongues. Whatever your opinion of that gift may be, it certainly sounds
beautiful here. This is a Hollywood movie, and a woman is praying in
tongues, and it is beautiful, and she is beautiful. Wonders never cease.
In fact, prayer and worship are consistently shown as inviting, peaceful,
and joyous. A small group sits in a living room singing “The Sweetest Name I
know,” and they’re practically floating away. Any viewer would get the
impression that those who don’t love Jesus and pray with others are missing
one of life’s great joys.
Realistically enough there are a couple of negative figures: an overbearing
pastoral counselor who announces “I consider myself a prophet,” and the
pastor’s wife, who corrects Corinne a couple of times about proper feminine
behavior. But even she is well-meaning, not vile. The tension here is not
between Corinne and an oppressive church, not at all. The tension is within
She can’t make her faith work the way she thinks it should. She can’t pray
with relaxed whole-heartedness, like Annika does. She can’t grab hold of the
gift of tongues, though she stands in the bathroom coaching the Holy Spirit
as you would a little league batter: “*Come *on Holy Spirit. *Come *on Holy
Spirit,” followed by a stuttering, but self-extinguishing, blast of
She can’t hold still when her husband wants to kiss her—she can’t keep
herself from turning her lips away at the last moment. And, when tragedy
strikes, she has a hard time fighting her way through to a survivor’s faith.
This is, to some extent, a movie about doubt, and that’s a topic most
Christians already know about. It’s a commonplace around churches that
“everybody has doubts,” and knowing that it’s common actually helps. So we
support each other when we’re struggling. We pray for each other. We just
keep on showing up for prayer and worship, even it seems God doesn’t.
Sometimes, we just have to wait it out.
So Christians will empathize with Corinne’s struggle. When she pours out her
heart to the church she says, “I need all this to be real but I don’t know
how to make it real,” and the camera cuts away to show us the pastor
nodding. It’s a blessing to see that—to have permission to admit that.
Some reviewers have compared *Higher Ground *to Robert Duvall’s *The Apostle
*(1997), and it is a similarly positive portrayal of Southern evangelical
faith. But before you organize a congregational outing with the church bus,
note that R rating. Among the tools employed by this clever and sometimes
very funny movie are flashes of raunchy humor that are definitely not for
children, and probably not for every adult at your church either. Apart from
that, this is a movie that will be touching for anyone who ever asked Jesus
into his heart, and years later felt, as Corinne confesses, “I’m still
waiting for him to make himself at home.” Yet, she concludes, “I won’t let
go until he blesses me.”
Talk About It
1. Was there a time when you had a faith experience so strong that you
thought you would never doubt again? What would that person want to tell you
2. When a character is disabled by illness, it troubles Corinne’s faith. But
in an earlier scene, when their bus plunges into a river, they attribute
their rescue to God. Why weren’t they angry that God let their bus go into
the river? Or joyous that the disabled character was saved from death? Is
there a pattern to our expectations of where God’s responsibility begins or
3. There’s more accurate quoting of Scripture in this film that any for a
long time. See if anyone in your group can name the scripture behind the
fantasy moment when Corinne steps outside the church and is surrounded by
all kinds of dogs. Next, see if anyone caught the pastor’s flub of a
The Family Corner
Not for children. A scattering of F-bombs, close view of faces of a couple
having sex, a fleeting view of a woman posing in lingerie, women talk about
and sketch their husband’s penises, and a fantasy sequence with
[3. The pastoral counselor had prayed with Corinne, “Lord, it’s either
inside with you, or outside with the dogs” (“Blessed are those who wash
their robes…that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs
and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters.” Rev
22:14-15.) The pastor gives thanks that Annika was delivered from “the
shadow of the valley of death,” not “valley of the shadow” (Ps 23:4).]
A Conversation with Vera Farmiga
Here’s what happens. You prepare for a phone interview with an actor or
director by thinking up a list of questions. Really, you only need one or
two good ones, and the conversation takes care of itself.
But the person being interviewed has a different perspective. There are
certain points they want to get across, regardless of which questions you
ask. They may have been reiterating these same points into different
microphones a dozen times a day for many days.
In this case, I wanted to ask Vera Farmiga, director and star of *Higher
Ground,* about the portrayal of the church community in the film. It’s more
affectionate and positive than the stereotypes we often see; it’s notably
more positive even than the presentation of this community in the book that
preceded the movie. In response to an audience question at Sundance, Farmiga
said that she had earlier spent three years with the project and then backed
off, because she didn’t feel right about the way the community was being
depicted. I wanted to hear more about that.
Vera, however, wanted to talk about the inherent struggle that accompanies a
search for God; she sees the film as being an honest representation of the
experience shared by adherents of any and every kind of faith, everyone who
knows those “I won’t let go until you bless me” moments. Here’s how our
*Whenever evangelical Christians hear there’s a movie coming out that
includes a depiction of evangelical Christians, they get nervous, because it
is so often negative.*
Understandably so. I get it. I understand that defensiveness or fear.
*The memoir that preceded the movie, This Dark World, depicted a church that
many evangelicals would consider oppressive or cultish, and they worry that
people might think it depicts evangelicals everywhere. Higher Ground is not
like that, though. It’s a more positive presentation. Was that a deliberate
Absolutely. You know, it’s not even a positive or negative portrayal; I’m
not skewing it either direction. I’m just showing a legitimate struggle —
the struggle to find intimacy in our relationships with God. It takes an
enormous amount of courage to say “I’m struggling” and to find your voice.
That honesty, the terror, the fear, is brutal — the admitting of that. But
God is big enough to accommodate it.
I wanted to make a legitimate film about that struggle. So to me, as the
director and as the actress, my responsibility is just to tell — is to be
blatant about it. Look, I think it’s easier to digest if you ask me well,
did you skew it positive, did you skew it negative? And it’s really not a
skew, it’s not a bias.
Carolyn Briggs herself will tell you that when that memoir was written—well,
look at the title: *This Dark World*. It’s now been renamed *Higher Ground*.
It’s piggyback marketing, but it’s also a more positive title. The book was
written at a very dark time in her life with very little perspective. And
she admits that the editors have skewed the memoir in a direction where it
appears like she completely rejected her faith, whereas she’s never wholly
been able to do that. It’s been a lifelong journey for her, but it’s between
her and God. And she had the courage to talk about that struggle. That
touched me to the depths of my being, to the depths of my soul. I admired
her courage in that story.
*And that’s a journey that you share, to some extent?*
I think we all do. Look, I mean you’d have to rip out all the pages about
Job; you’d have to rip out all the pages about Thomas in the Bible, if this
wasn’t a human condition, a legitimate one.
You know, I really felt that it’s possible, especially in these times, in
this harsh, rude, warring world that we live in, where most of the bloodshed
is, “My God is greater than your God” and we’re fighting in the name of our
God — we have to find a way to peaceably coexist, spiritually. God is love.
I think all religions can agree on certain definitions of God and concepts
of God, like God being the God of love, the great “I am” energy.
And so this was a challenge. I’m asking audience members that are not
fundamental Christians to have a certain measure of tolerance, of openness
and receptivity. And I’m saying, “Come and witness a story about a search
for authentic faith.” That search requires that we make a big leap into a
world of uncertainty, and these are expressions of courage and strength
rather than fear and weakness. That might not be easy to grasp.
*Christians may be able to grasp this more easily than non-Christians would
expect, because we are so familiar with this experience of struggling.*
I agree. I think what she wrestles with is what everybody wrestles with, no
matter what your belief system is, no matter how you’re approaching God.
*Something that surprised me in the movie was how positive the characters
are. We expect members of conservative churches to be presented as
Unattractive, lacking a sense of humor, lacking sexuality, lacking
personality. This really is a fringe community, and yes, the pastor was
having a really selfish day when he shut Corinne down [in a scene where
Corinne is rebuked for appearing to preach, usurping the masculine role].
Pastors are human beings, too. And these are real issues that I think women
at that time and place in history were struggling with.
Again, it is a fringe community. I keep stating that. I keep saying that I’m
not trying to make a big statement about Christianity and patriarchy. It’s
not. It really has to do just with this certain denomination in a time and
place in history.
*A lot of that has changed since the 70s; the role of women is very
different than it was four decades ago. *
Yeah, but I think there still is sort of a gender bias in terms of pastoring
churches and the numbers there, but that is changing as well.
*Well, there’s a gender bias in Congress, you know; it’s everywhere.*
Yeah, it’s everywhere. It’s in my profession; the reason I took the reins of
this film was because I feel like I don’t get the opportunities that I want
to voice the challenges of my soul. I feel like since *Down to the
Bone*(2004), which was I think my calling card for every film I’ve
ever done, I
think that since that experience I haven’t really had the opportunity to
delve so deeply into not only the physical, emotional and intellectual scope
of a character but into the spiritual dimension. So this was me creating my
*That’s great. And it was to some degree autobiographical because of
struggles you yourself have known?*
Absolutely. And will know the end of my days. I grew up in a Ukrainian
Catholic-turned-Christian household, and that is my family’s faith. My
father instilled in me — of utmost importance and innate in me is the
yearning to determine for myself — to define God, to define holiness for
myself. That was my parents’ number one lesson for us. They are men and
women of God and that’s where they operate from.
*There is a really rich artistic tradition in Eastern Catholicism; there’s a
lot of beauty there.*
We started off Ukrainian Catholic, and that’s still part of our heritage and
has been an influence as well, but my parents had moved to a certain
nondenominational, Pentecostal Christianity, just to be clear. In their
search for a more personal [faith], to get away from ritual, even though
ritual is so beautiful, I think they were looking for very direct [faith].
*Were you raised in a Pentecostal church, then? How old were you when they
made the switch? *
I was raised in many different kinds of church. I’ve sat in hundreds and
hundreds of denominations. And ultimately the closest one to our house was —
we traipsed around everywhere, we moved several times. But we went back and
forth between holy days in the Ukrainian Catholic church, and Sundays at the
local evangelical house of worship.
*Can you tell us anything about where you’re attending now?*
I have not been home enough. Just as perspective, our two-and-a-half year
old has been on 80-something flights in his life. We’re constantly going,
constantly traveling. So for us, God is in temples and in churches, and on
park benches. I don’t belong to any particular church, but I’m someone who
will be able to walk in any place of worship, any house of worship, and have
a direct correspondence.
*Thank you for giving us a character like Annika. She’s delightful and
surprising, in that she’s nothing like how evangelicals Christians are
usually depicted. She’s a blessing, in that way. *
I agree. I just got chills. I agree. That’s Christians as I know them, with
all their perfections and imperfections. I mean, that’s humans as I know