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What is a “successful” cultural product?

Is it a film becoming a box-office hit? Is it multiple Academy Award trophies or Grammy’s? Is it a great review in The New York Times? Is it getting your paintings purchased by a major museum? Is it becoming a Best Seller?

When a great movie like “Silence” or Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life”, another masterpiece in recent memory, struggles at the box office and with distribution battles, these questions are raised.

I thought I would list a series of possibilities on how we define “success” in art:

A successful work of art is enduring.

So it’s not whether we are speaking of it when it is released. It’s a few years later, a few decades later, and, yes, even five hundred years later. A successful work of art, like the poems of Emily Dickinson, may never see the light of day until many years later.

A successful work of art is generative.

Every time I visit Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” I see it as fresh as it was painted yesterday. Every viewer will have a different response, and consistent and near-universal observation of the work continuing to move and expand our hearts.

A successful work of art is a gift, and ultimately not defined by the market.

In order for #1 and #2 to occur, the work has to speak beyond flashy marketing and fads of culture.

So is Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” such an enduring work? I believe so, and here’s why.

What the critics who gave negative reviews wrote shows that “Silence” does not fit into a neat category. As I’ve said in commenting on the film “Silence” is too slow for Hollywood, too violent for “safe for the whole family” Christian mindset, and too religious for the secularists. The most interesting critique is made on the acting of Andrew Garfield. Some of the critics saw his performance as “weak” and the other actors seem to be more powerful, even the fringe actors, in the film. Some wished that Adam Driver (excellent in the film) should have been given a bigger role (which is not warranted by the original novel or his character). Manohla Dargis of New York Times wrote, speaking of Andrew Garfield’s acting: “When he carries on alone, speaking to God, questioning and suffering at great, monotonous length, his weakness becomes tedious, as does the film.”

But seeing the film for the fifth time, I have another perspective. How Andrew Garfield plays the role is exactly how Fr. Rodrigues’s character is designed to be played. Even in the original novel, the character of Fr. Rodrigues begins to disappear as the story continues. He begins to subsume himself for the sake of others; and at the end, he loses everything and then he finds his true self. That self will have a Japanese name “Okada Sanemon” a name of a criminal that has died. Fr. Rodrigues “inverts” himself into becoming Japanese. We are supposed to reject him at the end.

Andrew Garfield captures this “inversion” in ways that I have not seen a main character in the film do. Perhaps film buffs out there may have similar examples, but what other actor so completely empties himself on the big screen, so that he literally becomes a mirror to shine the light on the others?

In other words, Andrew Garfield not only portrays a character, he literally chooses to disappear from taking the main stage. By doing so he surrenders even his right to be Andrew Garfield the actor, he literally becomes an imprisoned apostate priest, the “last priest on this land”. We witness on screen perhaps the most transgressive selfless-act of self-forgetting. An actor is not supposed to do that. An actor is supposed to dominate the main stage and be the light; A main actor is not supposed to disappear off the stage.

At the end of the movie “Silence”, there is a poignant scene of Fr. Rodrigues (now Okada Sanemon) and Kichijiro. Kichijiro who has been the Judas figure throughout, turns out to be Fr. Rodrigues’s best friend, the most trusted confidant. Kichijiro refuses to let Fr. Rodrigues give up his identity as a priest. As Andrew Garfield says Fr. Rodrigues’s last lines, ““But our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of Him”, the spotlight and the strength are transferred literally to Kichijiro. Martin Scorsese spends the last 24 minutes of the film to post-apostate life of Fr. Rodrigues. That is an incredible amount of time to be invested in the movie for a few pages from the book. To Marty, these 24 minutes is the crux of his personal statement to the viewers, and as the film concludes, the ending becomes a beginning.

A beginning of what?

Well, it’s a beginning of a journey for us to take - it’s a journey toward a reconsideration of success and even more. It is a reconsideration of the posture of the Christian in Culture. This posture will reflect the themes of silence and beauty. These “virtues” are experienced in times of waiting. This is a journey toward a reconsideration of our way as believers.

Endo shows that it is in failing (in the world’s eyes) that we might find our true calling and an enduring narrative. It is through weakness and vulnerability that we may find true strength. Andrew Garfield shows that it is in disappearing into the chasm of doubt and betrayal that one finds the true role as an actor. It’s no longer about self-expression and winning the Oscars; it’s literally about becoming Okada-Sanemon. I think it will take a while before we can all begin to understand what Andrew Garfield did in “Silence”. He gave himself away, utterly and completely, and to me it is poignant and devastating at the same time.

This re-definition of success will fundamentally change how we view ourselves, how we see mission activities, and how we see art and film. “Silence” is an enduring work of art that will be spoken of in a decade or two, perhaps even centuries from now. Refracting in the pools of his own face now contorted and disfigured, Fr. Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, crosses the boundaries of filmmaking. By losing himself as an actor, he may give as a gift to a future generation of actors a new way of being an actor: perhaps the art of acting is not about the spotlight, but generously giving him or herself to the character and the others on stage.

Perhaps when we look back at film-history, we will see that Andrew Garfield’s performance was indeed ground-breaking, the first of many to come. Perhaps we will see that the weakest of voices remaining from 17th century Japan is now the most enduring, what has been trampled has now become venerated, captured by a master filmmaker and seen by millions; and that his “failure” is the beginning of finding true, lasting success.

Makoto Fujimura, Pasadena