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Religious Woman Navigates Crisis of Faith in 'Higher Ground'

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Alan Silverman

Actress Vera Farmiga, nominated for an Oscar in 2010 for her role in "Up In The Air," tries her hand at directing in a new drama about a religious woman questioning her faith. Alan Silverman has this look at Higher Ground.



"All right, now with everyone's eyes closed …no one looking around …raise your hand if you've made a decision today."


Bible school is a powerful influence on young Corinne. From the moment the Midwestern farm girl declares herself "saved," her Christian faith guides her in her decisions on marriage and family with her high school sweetheart. But events lead Corinne to question that faith.

CORINNE: "What do you see when you look at me? Mother of your children? A virtuous woman? Handmaiden of the Lord?"

ETHAN: "We are waging a battle here for your soul. We want you in heaven."


CAPTION
Vera Farmiga in a scene from "Higher Ground"

Vera Farmiga stars as the adult Corinne and makes her directing debut with Higher Ground. She acknowledges that the story can trigger strong reactions.

"It's tricky subject matter about doubt, the notion of doubt in faith. It is something that everyone, no matter what your religion or spiritual tenets or philosophy about life is, contends with at some point in their life," Farmiga says.

"Lord help me because I can't feel you. I feel nothing. Draw near to me Lord. Come on, where are you, huh? Where are you?"

"The subject matter is tough for any of us," the actress-director admits. "If you were to direct it, you would have to have a certain measure of introspection and take inventory of what your 'spiritual goods' are and say 'what is my concept of God? What is my concept of holiness or of a successful soul? How do I find a way to relate to every single character, whether I like them or not?' It's a real lesson in openness and receptivity."

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Vera Farmiga and Dagmara Dominiczyk in "Higher Ground"

Farmiga says a major challenge was to convince the cast - including herself - not to criticize the characters or their choices.

"People come with their own memories, perceptions, afflictions and their own experiences. Often, I found that the actors wanted to lash out at these characters and make them unrelatable and caricatured," she says.

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Joshua Leonard and Vera Farmiga in "Higher Ground"

Co-star Joshua Leonard admits he started out by judging his character, Corinne's husband Ethan. Leonard says that changed after Farmiga arranged for him to spend time with fundamentalist Christians.

"When I started going to churches and watching things, when those people are singing and raising their hands and 'feeling the Spirit,' they are not judging anything," he notes. "They are in a place of complete and absolute receptivity. Part of what I think opened my heart up through the process of doing this film was (learning) that maybe I make it too damned hard  on myself to let go."

Still, Vera Farmiga insists Higher Ground is about a woman's search for love and honesty - with her faith as one part of the journey.

"It is not a religious film. It is a film with the backdrop of faith, and I find that non-believers and believers alike can draw something very powerful from it," Farmiga says.

Higher Ground
is inspired by the 2002 memoir This Dark World by Carolyn S. Briggs. She also co-wrote the screenplay.

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