"HIGHER GROUND" profiles a Christian woman undergoing a crisis of faith in a fundamentalist church with no room for doubters.
It's based on the memoir of Carolyn Briggs, who wrote of becoming an earnest and enthusiastic Christian at age 18 before finding herself in a marriage and a church whose tightening strictures gradually provoked a spiritual and intellectual rebellion.
The fictionalized "Higher Ground" looks at the entire life of a believer named Corinne (played by director Vera Farmiga), but concentrates on her years as a conflicted adult.
Director Farmiga fills the generally respectful "Higher Ground," with details surely borrowed from Briggs' experience. These account for some authentic scenes, and give the movie a welcome sense of humor (scenes of men listening earnestly to tapes that instruct them in conjugal duty seem amusingly real).
For all of this specificity, however, the movie is often strangely vague - time and place are never addressed, and there seems to be nothing in the lives of the believers except church.
The women wear 19th-century clothes, submit to a highly paternal form of Christianity (a woman scolds Corinne for making remarks in church that come unacceptably close to the man's work of preaching.)
Farmiga does not explain the origins, beliefs and denominational affiliation of the church, or even its geography. The movie looks for something resonant and universal in Corinne's spiritual confusion, but in some ways her church seems like an informal cult, and that gives her need for separation a different spin.
And yet the movie is full of interesting ideas and performances. Farmiga is always good, and there's a nice role for Dagmara Dominczyk as her one true friend in the church.
"Higher Ground" plays around with the reinforcing links between marriage and religion, and goes a provocative step further by comparing faith to physical desire (Corinne loses sexual interest in her husband apace with her loss of faith).
But she never loses all of her faith, and the movie ends on a welcome note of ambiguity. As a director, Farmiga sometimes leans a little too hard on visual metaphor, but has a light touch in the final scene, when she needs it the most.
Her Corinne is never a woman who finds religion useless. She desperately wants God in her life, and asks repeatedly for that very thing. In the end, she's a woman waiting for an answer.