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Is “Higher Ground” Sacrilegious or Humanist: Will Right-Wingers Praise or Vilify Farmiga’s Debut?

Is "Higher Ground" Sacrilegious or Humanist: Will Right-Wingers Praise or Vilify Farmiga's Debut?

When I saw actor-turned-director Vera Farmiga’s new film “Higher Ground” (opening Friday in New York and Los Angeles), I found it to be a mildly pleasing examination of a woman’s struggle with her faith in God. Even to my atheistic mind, the movie was a refreshing change of pace–neither a bible-bashing heavy-handed dramatic critique of religion, nor some rose-colored championing of evangelical Christianity.

But you can’t really make a film about religion in this country without it being pounced on, with right-wingers automatically declaring heathenism to the highest degree. Strangely, some reviews of the film from non-political or religious websites, such as Slant Magazine and indieWIRE’s own The Playlist have completely misjudged the film, I believe. When I read The Playlist headline, suggesting that the film “Revels In Its Callow, Low Blows To Catholicism,” I actually thought it was an Onion-like joke.

In my review of the film for Screen Daily at Sundance, I actually found the movie to be quite the opposite.

“Given that the subject matter could easily descend into flat-out satire,” I wrote, “Farmiga employs an approach that is just short of miraculous, never condescending to her flock of ‘believers,’ and yet still poking some innocent fun at the proceedings. In one terrific bit of physical comedy, Farmiga’s character so wants to feel ‘the Spirit’ and speak in tongues that she goes into her bathroom to give it a try, sashaying and praying as best she can, but to no avail. While such sequences might offend the most extreme of evangelical audiences, Farmiga’s own generous spirit shines through. As a director and an actor, she doesn’t want to lampoon the faithful; she just wants to interrogate her protagonist’s struggle with faith.”

When I interviewed Farmiga for Variety (firewalled), she, of course, spoke with the utmost respect about religious faith, her appreciation for Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle,” and the fact that she was drawn to a story that is as much about God as about a woman overcoming great obstacles.

“It’s a story that I felt intellectually, spiritually, emotionally challenged by, and, I’m not even sure why,” she told me. “It just hit me hard. I just wanted to explore that subject matter with an authenticity.”

It’s a tact that Christian filmmakers might want to consider. This same weekend, a movie called “Suing The Devil” is also being released in theaters, hoping to draw faith-based audiences. The film’s director said in a press release: “Everyone wants to punch Satan in the nose — suing him is the next best thing.”

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I enjoyed "Higher Ground" and I always enjoy Vera Farmigas acting but I rather watch a "bible-bashing heavy-handed dramatic critique of religion" than listen to coward, faux-tolerant liberals willfully misrepresent critique of religion and its enduring influence on politics and policies as attacks on freedom of expression/religion. "Higher Ground" was fortunately not interested in discussing religion, or spirituality for that matter. As I saw it was about a woman tethered to a hippy-ish religious sect coming to terms with the fact that she would never be able to really break free and be truly independent (without harming the family).

Jacob Moore

‘Suing the Devil’ is a brilliant film written by a Harvard alum who was an attorney. It’s a very apologetic film that is far more intellectual than the normal movie, let alone faith-based one. The best scene is a guy on the witness stand proves God exists in 30 seconds! I’m an atheist and even that made me think twice.


@AnthonyKaufman –
“But you can’t really make a film about religion in this country without it being pounced on, with right-wingers automatically declaring heathenism to the highest degree.”

Good grief. I thought I could get through a thoughtful review of ‘Higher Ground’ w/o it resorting to reductionist, tacky ranting and stereotyping about the left/right divide. If you really anticipate that most “religious” folk would react that way to this — or films like this — you really need to get out more.

But to Farmiga’s directorial debut, which I saw at Tribeca — Higher Ground was not only fair, but a humane and generous portrait of a faith community. Her willingness to render another community in as authentic and vulnerable a manner as she did, here, is really the greatest act of artistry and — dare I say — love.

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