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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Overcast
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Higher Ground can't settle on a tone
Religious struggle

It's a chilling Bible verse, Psalm 137:9: "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks." Really? God says killing children could be associated with happiness - or blessedness, as it's sometimes rendered?

Once my priest taught a lesson about that verse. He said it's really important, that anyone who takes Christianity seriously has to grapple with it. I agree that being religious means struggling with difficult ideas, so I'm discomfited that the verse is a throwaway gag in Higher Ground, a dramedy that asks us to take Christianity seriously, up to a point. After a traumatic experience, a couple finds solace in faith, and in one early scene the husband seeks inspiration by randomly choosing a Bible verse. It's the Psalm 137 zinger. The couple looks comically stricken, and we move on. Ha ha.

The scene sums up the film's biggest problem: It's ambivalent about its subject, and not in a rewarding way. Director and star Vera Farmiga never gets a handle on the tone, which swings between earnest tragedy and flippant farce. Call me a fuddy-duddy, but I don't think Psalm 137:9 is very funny.

I admire aspects of the film, which is based on a memoir by co-screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs. There is a sexual frankness that's bracing and good-humored, and the religion that's depicted is interesting. It's an evangelical sort of Christianity that's conservative in some ways. In particular, women aren't allowed to preach to men. But it has its roots in the countercultural Jesus-freak movement, so there are 1960s elements, too, including an emphasis on vegetarianism and acoustic guitars. The film isn't at pains to explain how these strands fit together, which is to its credit. Sometimes religion isn't tidy.

Farmiga is pretty amazing as Corinne, the woman at the center of the film. In individual scenes, she captures a subtle mix of warmth and wit. But this character's struggle doesn't seem as momentous as we're meant to think it is. In particular, her give-me-a-sign-Lord imprecations suggest a child's understanding of faith.

And her revolt against the church doesn't always make sense, dramatically speaking. True, at times the church looks monstrous, especially when it's represented by a cartoonishly pious matron. But in other scenes the church is a comfort to parishioners dealing with very difficult problems. Revolting against that makes less sense to me.

Then there's the ham-handed way the film dramatizes Corinne's journey to the secular world. In one late, supposedly telling scene, she takes her children to an art show that, gasp, includes a nude portrait. So there aren't nudes in religious art? That news would surprise Michelangelo.

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