and my Oscar goes to … Vera Farmiga

Vera Farmiga sings praises in "Higher Ground"

For all the abuse it takes from critics, the Academy Awards serves at least one useful function: It makes us go to the movies. We rush during this final week to see the best-picture nominees so we can feel some ownership of the winner-selection come Oscar night.
Thanks to this last-minute cramming, my vote goes to “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s marvelous, magical story of a boy who lives in a 1930s Paris train station. I know — why should we care? Because “Hugo” does what wonderful movies do: It takes you someplace else, tells you a good story, fills your soul with delight and your eyes with gorgeous imagery.
As critic David Edelstein put it, “You must heed the subliminal advertising in the title. YOU GO.”
But I would offer the same advice about another 2011 film that is notably not up for an Oscar. Unlike the 3-D, big-screen marvels of “Hugo,” this is one of those “little films” that you didn’t even know was in the theaters. More to the point of this blog, it is that true Hollywood rarity – a film about faith that takes faith seriously.
More to the particular point, “Higher Ground” is about the struggle to hold onto faith and whether the fight is worth waging. Directed by and starring Vera Farmiga, this is a movie that tells its story not with dazzling images but with memorable moments. It doesn’t knock your eyes out, but sits you down and keeps your full attention in the quietest of ways.
In blogging that Farmiga was robbed of an Oscar nomination, critic Roger Ebert wrote of her film, “In a world where believers and agnostics are polarized and hold simplified ideas about each other, it takes a step back and sees faith as a series of choices that should be freely made.”
My soulmate Andrea and I saw “Higher Ground” in the theater of Netflix, where so many fine little movies await our watching. We took a chance because we like Farmiga, who has quietly worked her way into the public eye with excellent performances such as George Clooney’s lover in “Up in the Air.” Farmiga has a natural, winning way about her that makes you wait for her presence onscreen.
In her directing debut here, she won critics’ praise with her portrayal of a woman living in an evangelical religious sect who finds herself increasingly conflicted about both its doctrinal demands and her feelings for her onetime rock-musician husband.
Typically, this would be a setup for one brave woman’s escape from an oppressive, narrow-minded cult. Not so here. Farmiga portrays the beliefs and people of her faith community with rare sensitivity and respect. Her non-judgmental lens shows us real people trying to live out their faith, not cardboard action figures representing naive believers.
In this it recalls “The Apostle,” Robert Duvall’s excellent 1997 film about a Pentecostal preacher on the run from a horrible crime. That movie, like “Higher Ground,” is the rare film that “respects the authenticity of religious experience,” as The New York Times’ A.O. Scott put it.
Too often Hollywood goes to one extreme or the other with faith, portraying preachers as hypocritical buffoons and their followers as gullible goats — or praising the faithful as brave and perfect pilgrims in a shallow and hateful world. If it’s a movie about biblical figures, even in such largely well-done films as “The Nativity Story,” its main characters can do no wrong because, well, because the Bible said so.
But in faith, as in all else, the story is seldom simple. Movies like “Higher Ground” respect faith by treating it as a complex, living reality.
In Farmiga’s case, the nuances she gracefully captures no doubt spring from her own experience growing up in a Ukrainian Orthodox family that converted to Pentecostalism. Her story reflects the reality that you can love people of faith, even envy them, without being able to believe with them.
It’s the kind of story Hollywood should lift up more often. Since the Academy hasn’t, let me do it for you. I would offer the same advice as for “Hugo”: You go.

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