Vera Farmiga is the director and star of "Higher Ground." (Molly Hawkey / Sundance…)
Reporting from Park City, Utah — — It takes a lot of faith to make an independent film. This year, independent films are showing a lot of faith.
Among the roughly 120 features playing at this year's Sundance Film Festival, a surprisingly large number use faith — and specifically Christianity — as either a critical narrative fulcrum or a key expositional backdrop. And the dramas do not always take a neutral stance.
Kevin Smith's gothic horror story "Red State" targets a violently homophobic pastor modeled on the real-life, gay-bashing Baptist Fred Phelps. George Ratliff's dark comedy "Salvation Boulevard" casts Pierce Brosnan as the charismatic head of a mega-church (he's loosely patterned after Australia's Brian Houston) who's hardly practicing what he preaches. And Irish actor Paddy Considine's "Tyrannosaur" explores the futility of faith through the relationship between an embittered older man (Peter Mullan) and a woman working in charity thrift shop.
Yet two other features — Vera Farmiga's "Higher Ground" and Matthew Chapman's "The Ledge" — are not interested in using spirituality for satire or shock, instead looking at religion for a deeper dramatic purpose.
Festival director John Cooper said he was struck by how many submissions focused on faith, and he feels it's a reflection of filmmakers considering issues larger than themselves. "It's America looking at itself," Cooper says.
An actress best known for "Up in the Air," Farmiga makes her directorial debut with "Higher Ground," based on the memoir "This Dark World" by Carolyn Briggs. Farmiga also plays the lead role of Corinne, who has grown up in a Pentecostal church but feels like her life lacks a deeper purpose. "I feel like I live in an empty place," Corinne says at one point.
Farmiga says the film didn't have to be set in a church. What was important, she says, was that Corinne experience a crisis of faith. Having led an emotionally and intellectually sheltered life, Corinne eventually has a personal epiphany, and it's not necessarily her baptism.
"She is a seeker. She's got to find herself," Farmiga says of the film's central turn. "She's not trying to rid herself of faith. She's trying to rid herself of an impoverished faith — an impoverished faith in God, an impoverished faith in marriage."
Even though the small church that is central to Corinne's life is patriarchal and doesn't necessarily fulfill her spiritually, Farmiga is careful not to judge its members — and, by extension, other similar believers. "Some of these people believe they have the answers, and they do," Farmiga says. "And I hope audiences will be refreshed to see Christians depicted in a fully developed, sexualized way — not just with Sunday school values."
Some of those values — including a very rigid reading of the Bible — shape Chapman's "The Ledge," which is outwardly a ticking-clock thriller about a man poised to jump to his death and inwardly a debate about how faith and forgiveness can shape personal relationships.
Patrick Wilson plays Joe, the rigid, scripture-quoting husband of Shauna (Liv Tyler), whose affair with a hotel manager named Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) leads to a potentially deadly showdown. The film suggests that even though Gavin is the obvious spiritual apostate, his convictions and behavior might actually be more selfless.
"The film examines two men who have both suffered tragedies and reacted in very different ways," Chapman says. "One has turned to faith," he says of Joe, "and one has turned to humanism," he adds of Gavin, whose beliefs closely mirror the director's.
Chapman hopes moviegoers will see "The Ledge" not only as an entertaining parable about "the consequences of a too-literal interpretation of religious texts" but also view Joe with understanding rather than judgment. If "The Ledge" — which was bought by IFC Films — succeeds as Chapman intends, audience members might have the same kind of spiritual discussions as they leave the theater as Joe and Gavin have in the film. "I would like it to provoke a debate," Chapman says. "I think the big question is, What price can somebody pay for faith?"
The price of faith in Ratliff's "Salvation Boulevard" can be high, even in the film's comic setting. Brosnan plays televangelist Dan Day, and among his followers are Carl and Gwen Vanderveer (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly), whose devotion to their pastor (and each other) is tested after a gun accident. The film is very loosely based on the novel of the same name by Larry Beinhart.
Ratliff says he grew up in an Amarillo, Texas, evangelical movement, but left the church as a teenager, and considers religion "basically superstitious." Religious convictions, particularly in a mega-church led by a charismatic preacher, are a perfect milieu for satire, he thinks. "I felt I had to explore it — there's some great comedy there, there's some great drama there," Ratliff says. "It's really using religion for a character story."