Thursday, September 8, 2011

One woman's faith is severely tested

Vera Farmiga makes her directorial debut with a surprising look at people of faith.
Those familiar with Vera Farmiga 's work (Up in the Air and Source Code) already know that she's a fine actress. With Higher Ground, we also learn that Farmiga is a capable director, and that she's willing to tackle subjects that don't often yield to intelligent examination on film -- in this case deeply held religious conviction.

Beginning in the 1970s, Higher Ground examines the life of Corinne -- played by Farmiga as an adult and by her younger sister, Taissa Farmiga, as a teen-ager. Early sequences tend to be a bit muddled, but the story takes hold after an accident in which Corinne's baby almost dies. At that point, Corrine and her husband join a faith-based fundamentalist Christian community in which the members shelter their convictions in an insular environment, perhaps stopping a few steps short of a cult.

But here's the thing: Farmiga -- working from a script based on a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs -- isn't out to trash religion. The people in this faith-based community are sincere. They try to integrate their beliefs into every facet of their lives. And, yes, there's something challenging about the notion that faith isn't an accessory to be donned with one's Sunday-go-to-meeting finery, but something to be lived.

For her part, Corinne tries hard to keep up -- and for a long while she does. Moreover, the emerging issues between Corinne and her husband can be read as typical of a lot of realationships: Corinne grows; her husband (Joshua Leonard) doesn't. He professes to be happy with the way things are. Increasingly, she's not. Truth be told, she's also bored with the single-mindedness of the conversations that tend to dominate the community.

The cracks in Corinne's faith armor gradually widen. At one point, she stands in front of a mirror, trying to summon the Holy Spirit. Inspired by a friend, she wants to speak in tongues, to talk in what the movie calls "prayer language," which Corinne finds beautiful. If she's visited by the spirit, she'll know she's on the right path. Her beliefs will have been validated by a direct experience of the divinity to whom she prays. She wants to be seized.

Farmiga injects some humor into the proceedings, but doesn't sacrifice the humanity of the her characters. Her best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) gives vent to repressed libidinal urges by making drawings of her husband's penis. The relationship between Corinne and Annika has moments of shared intimacy that may have more to do with their bond as women then with any religious beliefs. Corinne also maintains relationships (not always smooth) with her alcoholic father (John Hawkes) and with other family members.

It's hardly a spoiler to tell you that Corinne eventually breaks from her an environment that she may simply have outgrown. She can't do this without a sense of loss: Corinne may even envy the faith that seems to have come more easily to some of her companions, and this leads to a wrenching late-picture scene in which Corinne grapples with something we all eventually must encounter, that moment in which nothing less than total honesty will suffice.


Can a chimpanzee live a Dickensian life? I might not have thought so until I saw Project Nim, director James Marsh's documentary about the human meddling that resulted in a whole lot of suffering for a chimp named Nim Chimpsky, an ironic reference to linguist Noam Chomsky. Nim, who was taught to communicate through sign language, started his bildungsroman of a life with a New York family, but was moved around more often than an unlucky foster child. Along the way, Nim illuminates deep corners of character in the humans he encounters. It's not always a pretty picture. I was troubled to learn that Msrsh (Man On A Wire) recreated some scenes and even used some animatronics. But if Marsh wanted to convince us that Nim -- who was born at an Oklahoma facility -- would have been better off had he spent his life as far from humans as possible, Project Nim is a resounding success. Nim's tortuous journey can break your heart.

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